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caption: A drug user displays two blue fentanyl pills she is smoking in downtown Seattle, October 22, 2021.
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A drug user displays two blue fentanyl pills she is smoking in downtown Seattle, October 22, 2021.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Fentanyl is a great drug for cartels. But those blue pills are killing King County

Fentanyl pills are often called blues, and they’re on sale everywhere.

It’s just gotten so easy to make and smuggle fentanyl that it’s flooding the illegal drug market in this area – and killing people – more than ever.

“Everybody's got blues. People pushing baby strollers that you think are just like a mom and her husband walking down the street, will be like, ‘Hey, you need blues?’ And you're like, ‘Say whaaaat?’”

That’s Michaela. We’re using just her first name for safety reasons. She says she’s addicted to smoking fentanyl pills.

‘Blues’ are everywhere because smuggling fentanyl has gotten so easy. Deaths from these pills broke records last year in the Pacific Northwest and nationally.

The explanation you often hear for this is the pandemic. But, the economics of the illegal drug market also share blame. When I run into Michaela in downtown Seattle in late October, she’s got a few of these pills in her hand on a piece of aluminum foil, the kind you use for leftovers.

“Heavy duty works best,” she explains. “If it's not heavy duty, when they get crumbled they start getting holes in them, and then the pills catch on fire. And then you gotta put the fire out and your pills usually get wasted.”

Michaela has a lot of expertise like this, since she says she’s been using drugs since she was around 12 years old. She’s in her early 20s now.

Over the past year blue fentanyl pills have risen to the top of the local drug market. Michaela hadn’t even heard of them until recently, and now they’re all she does.

“All it took was two days of me just smoking blues,” she says. “I threw all the needles away, I threw away all the cookers. I deleted heroin dealers’ phone numbers, like it was that quick.”

Fentanyl is more potent and addictive than heroin. It gets you higher faster — and can cost about the same per dose. Which is to say, cheap.

The going rate is two pills for $15, or three for $20, per Michaela, although her guy on Capitol Hill gives her a deal. She pays $5 a piece. Her addiction has gone “through the roof,” she says. She smokes 30 or 40 pills a day, to the tune of $200.

That is exactly what illegal drug manufacturers want, according to author Sam Quinones. He writes about the underground drug trade in his new book, “The Least of Us.”

“Synthetic drugs have enormous benefits to drug traffickers and drug dealers,” says Quinones.

The supply of synthetic drugs – namely fentanyl and meth – has surged in the past year. The national Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued an alert in September that their agents had seized more than 9.5 million pills this year. That’s more than they seized in the past two years combined.

Fentanyl and meth are vastly more efficient to produce compared to heroin, cocaine and cannabis.

“You don't need lots of land to grow your drugs, you're not growing drug,” Quinones says. “No seasons. No irrigation. No large teams of farmers harvesting.”

The supply chain is much cheaper and you can pump out fentanyl powder year-round. Combine it with some filler, press it into pills and voila, a product that is easy to smuggle and easy to market. A small baby blue pill just seems safer – kinder even -- than a needle and some black tar heroin.

“Fentanyl allows the Mexican trafficking world, the underworld really, to gain access to what before only drug companies had access to, and that is our American deep love and trust in pills,” Quinones says.

There is no reason we should trust those pills. They contain variable amounts of fentanyl and just a few grains of it can kill you. This fall the DEA also reported a “dramatic rise” in the number of counterfeit pills containing a lethal dose of fentanyl of at least two milligrams.

In King County, more than 300 people have already died this year from fentanyl overdoses. That’s nearly twice as many as all of last year.

The trend appears to be growing exponentially. King County reported around 60 deaths involving fentanyl in 2018 and around 20 two years before that.

In Kent, Darlen Sullivan chills by the road with a ham, turkey and bacon sandwich. She’s next to a busy intersection and a sign for a smoke shop. This area is a local drug market hotspot.

A few times Sullivan ran to get help when friends were overdosing, she says. They lived with the help of the overdose antidote Narcan. But she knows other people who have died.

“As sad as it is to say, we can't say when it's going to happen or who it might happen to,” Sullivan says. “If it happens, it happens, and sometimes there's just nothing we can do about it.”

Usually, Sullivan smokes heroin and meth. She’s “not a fan” of the blue fentanyl pills since they’re too dangerous and too strong for her.

“I like to feel high, but I don't want to like be to the point where I have no life every single day where I'm just like, sleeping away and missing out on everything,” Sullivan says. “I'm feeling like I'm already missing out on enough as it is being out here not being with my family.”

But, sometimes, the blue pills are all that’s available. Earlier this spring there was a “heroin drought”.

“It's getting harder and harder to find heroin out here. Because the blue fentanyl pills are taking over.”

Fentanyl can sub in for heroin and prevent withdrawal, which feels like getting a terrible flu.

“I don't want to like be dope sick. So if I have to, I'll hit it, but I don't go overboard with it or anything.”

Even though she doesn’t want to, Sullivan says sometimes she might have to smoke a blue.