When I first stepped into my role as an agriculture reporter earlier this year, I was especially excited to learn much more about the ag industry -- from cover crops and floating tractors to the latest in drones and asparagus or Christmas tree farming.

Little did I know that I’d be given the opportunity to take my reporting in a different way, warning rural residents and farmers about an increasing danger they’re facing in the form of fake pills and the deadly narcotic, fentanyl.

I’ve had the opportunity on numerous occasions since March to visit with Justin King, DEA Omaha Division Special Agent in Charge, who wants rural Iowans to be aware of the agency’s efforts to keep residents safe. When I initially talked with Special Agent King back in April, the agency had just announced its first public safety alert in nearly six years, to raise public awareness of the nationwide surge in fake prescription pills, deceptively marketed as legitimate medicine but laced with fentanyl. The number of drug seizures had skyrocketed as well as the number of overdose deaths.

“We’re experiencing this at a level we’ve never seen across the United States,” King said. “Not just in metropolitan areas; this is permeating out into the rural areas, to the farm communities. Nobody is immune to the dangers.”

The DEA continues to support its One Pill Can Kill Public Awareness Campaign to educate citizens about the dangers of fake pills and fentanyl. The agricultural community should take the threat seriously, said King. As harvest season winds down, he said farmers should be vigilant. Drug traffickers are expanding their territories to sell fentanyl in multiple ways, including in rural Iowa. DEA representatives engaged with visitors at the Farm Progress Show in Boone in August, hosting a booth to raise awareness of and education about drug trends in the Midwest.

“We know from experience that drug trafficking and abuse isn’t limited to big cities and urban areas,” King said. “The Omaha Division covers a vast amount of agricultural land. We want to reach the communities we serve by providing potentially lifesaving information to everyone, and that includes farmers and ranchers who work tirelessly every day.”

The most dangerous threat today comes from the fentanyl that’s flooding the nation. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50 times stronger than heroin, and is potentially lethal at just two milligrams, small enough to fit on the tip of a sharpened pencil.

Last year, the DEA seized 20.4 million counterfeit pills that contained fentanyl, with 107,000 overdose deaths reported.

Back in April, King reported staggering 2022 numbers far outpacing the previous year, and the DEA in late September announced the results of an enforcement surge to reduce the fentanyl supply across the U.S. The DEA seized more than 10.2 million fentanyl pills and approximately 980 pounds of fentanyl powder from May-September, equivalent to more than 36 million lethal doses removed from the illegal drug supply.

Among the most prevalent seized today is what authorities are calling “rainbow fentanyl,” brightly-colored pills intended to look like candy that are targeted to appeal to young people.

Other “fake pills” laced with fentanyl are made to look like regular prescription drugs. King warns against skipping the doctor in favor of something, like a fake pill, that could be perceived as legitimate.

“Farmers are always up against a deadline,” said King. Either it’s the planting, growing or harvest season and it’s always time to go, he said. Farmers tend to put off things like going to the doctor because nobody else is going to do the work.

“(Agriculture) is the backbone of our country,” he said. “You see people will try to take advantage of these areas…finding ways to distribute in smaller, close-knit communities.”

Iowa’s legislators are starting to take notice. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley in October convened a Senate field hearing in Des Moines that allowed parents of Iowans lost to fentanyl poisoning to shine a light on the deadly epidemic. Grassley called for a commitment to raising awareness and for more resources and tools to combat the cartels spreading fentanyl across the southern border and into the communities right here in Iowa.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst in early November said she heard from concerned parents and local law enforcement officers about the fentanyl epidemic as she toured the state this past year. It’ll be imperative to continue the public awareness efforts, while securing the border, holding cartels accountable and punishing the distributors, she said.

Keeping the dangers of this fentanyl issue top of mind is critical for public awareness and safety, including in a place you wouldn’t expect – rural Iowa.

Get more stories like this one, for free!

Subscribe to our Farm Fresh Blog.
* indicates required