By Pat Anson, Editor
Three people have been arrested in San Francisco in what appears to be a widening investigation into sales of counterfeit pain medication.
Federal prosecutors say 39-year old Kia Zolfaghari and his wife, Candelaria Dagandan Vazquez, ran an illegal fentanyl pill manufacturing operation out of their San Francisco apartment. The pills were disguised to look like oxycodone.
The couple, along with King Edward Harris II of Oxnard, were arrested Friday in an undercover sting operation.
“The complaint alleges that Zolfaghari sold over 1,500 fentanyl-laced pills, over the course of six transactions, to a confidential source working with law enforcement. The complaint further alleges that Harris, 34, of Oxnard, brokered these narcotics sales in a series of recorded calls with the confidential source and hand-delivered two of those purchases to the confidential source,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement.
“Zolfaghari also sold the fentanyl-laced pills to customers through an online marketplace. The complaint alleges that Zolfaghari’s wife, Vazquez, 38, of San Francisco, conspired with him to carry out his drug trafficking operation, and delivered packages of pills for mailing, purchased packaging supplies, and accepted payments for narcotics via her bank account.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and can be lethal in very small doses.
It is prescribed legally to treat severe pain, but is also being manufactured illegally and sold on the street.
Fentanyl pills disguised to look like painkillers such as oxycodone and Norco are increasingly being found in the U.S. and Canada. Fake pain pills are blamed for at least 14 deaths in California and 9 in Florida. Some pills were purchased off the street by pain patients who were unable to get prescription medication through a doctor.
Massachusetts and Rhode Island recently reported an “alarming” rise in fentanyl overdoses. Over half the opioid overdose deaths in those states are now blamed on illicit fentanyl, not prescription pain medication.
A Minnesota medical examiner this month also blamed fentanyl for the accidental overdose of pop icon Prince. It’s not known if the fentanyl involved in Prince’s death was prescribed legally or obtained through other sources..
A Canadian couple were charged Friday with running an illegal fentanyl pill operation in British Columbia. Leslie John McCulloch and Rebekka Rae White were arrested in March after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided a warehouse in West Kelowna, B.C. and found pill producing equipment. The couple is currently out on bail.
Fentanyl is blamed for over 170 overdose deaths in B.C. alone so far this year.
The fentanyl scourge has become so serious that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has released a training video warning law enforcement officers that they could die just by handling a small amount of the drug.
The video features two New Jersey police officers who inhaled powdered fentanyl while collecting the drug as evidence during a raid. “I thought that was it. I thought I was dying. It felt like my body was shutting down,” said one detective.
In the video, acting DEA Deputy Administrator Jack Riley warns officers to avoid testing suspect fentanyl on the scene and to even keep their police dogs away from the drug because it is just too dangerous.To watch the video, click here.