SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — The opioid epidemic has taken a treacherous new turn in the Bay Area. Kids are getting their hands on counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl. KPIX talked to one local teen who says pills are all over school campuses.
Bobbi Noman has lived a lifetime in his 17 years. He’s been to hell and back and somehow is still alive to tell his story. “I wouldn’t want that on anyone, even my worst enemy,” he said.
Noman says it all began with rappers writing lyrics about “xans” or “xannys” and showing bright colored pills in their music videos. Xanax, the highly addictive prescription drug for anxiety, was now the latest deadly trend.
It wasn’t long before Noman mimicked his idols and swallowed his first pill when he was in 10th grade. “I got hooked the first pill I took,” said Noman.
At first, he was getting high at home, and then on campus. Noman says buying pills at any high school in the Bay area is easy. “One phone call, one text away from getting it, yeah. Any type of pill basically, it’s all pressed, it’s all fake.”
Bobbi’s pills weren’t Xanax at all. They were counterfeit. Many counterfeit pills contain the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. To give you an idea of how powerful fentanyl is, just 2 milligrams, or a few grains, can kill most people.
“Taking a counterfeit pill is 50/50. You are going to die or you are going to live the next day. I was taking those chances and basically I didn’t care,” said Bobbi.
Investigators say the risk today is higher than ever because Mexican cartels have taken over the counterfeit pill market. They’re driving the pills up from the border and into the Bay Area along established heroin trafficking routes, then distributing them through their network of dealers.
“I would put this right near the very top of the issues that I have seen out there,” said Chris Nielsen, DEA Special Agent in Charge for the San Francisco Region.
“Three years ago, the trafficker was probably an independent trafficker who was getting his equipment, his binder, the drug material off the dark web, buying it from China, setting up an operation maybe in a garage and the quality of pills wasn’t that great. But now the pills that are coming out from Mexico are professionally done. They just look exactly like the real thing, scary!” said Nielsen.
To give you an idea of the scope of the danger, the DEA seized 6.6 pounds of counterfeit pharmaceuticals in 2018. This year, that number climbed to 37.1 pounds, a more than 500% increase. The real and the fake are hard to tell apart, and it’s not just Xanax.
“Valium, hydrocodone, oxycodone, Percocet, and then Adderall is out there as well,” said Nielsen.
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Counterfeit oxycodone alone is what killed four teenagers in Santa Clara County in August. Deputy District Attorney Brian Buckelew is investigating the cases.
“The problem here is these super powerful drugs are masquerading as something benign. There is not the stigma that you have with heroin, these are cute little light blue pills,” said Buckelew.
He says the epidemic is especially bad in schools. “A fair number of the dealers that we catch in this county are young people. They advertise on social media. You have a 20-year-old-dealer and he is going to know 18-year-old students. The word gets out, these young people drive, they do deliveries.”
For Noman, his family locked him up at a rehab facility in Utah for three months. He’s relapsed once since he’s been back, but has been sober for four months. His dream is to be a rap artist.
We asked him how he managed to survive. “It’s a miracle,” he responded.
Noman’s father says, “Don’t judge.” If it happened to them, it can happen to anyone. And if they got through it, so can you.
“He showed me he can be trusted again. And I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. But I feel like he’s going to be okay. He’s going to be okay,” he said.
Noman’s family says they have fixed all the damage he did to the house during his drug-fueled rampages. Everything except for a hole he punched in his bedroom wall. It’s a reminder of how far he’s come and how far he’s got to go.
“Knowing how dangerous Xanax is, knowing how many lives it has taken, it’s crazy that I am able to speak on it. I want to be that voice,” said Noman.
Just this week, KPIX learned of two more deaths in Monterey County linked to counterfeit prescription pills. One of the victims was also a teenager. Law enforcement still doesn’t know if there’s any connection between what’s now six deaths.