CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - "If I didn't have my pain pills, my life would be miserable."
This Heartland pain patient struggles to get medication that is being abused at record rates. And police say what's being sold on the streets may be more than just addictive.
"If it's laced with Fentanyl, like I said it's Russian roulette. You don't know what you're getting."
The Opioid epidemic is considered a public health emergency. And there's no doubt it's hitting home right here in the Heartland.
One Cape Girardeau County woman explained what she goes through, just to get the medication she needs to manage her pain.
"I don't know what my life would be like if I couldn't get my pain medication every month."
She said just getting that needed prescription is becoming more and more difficult.
"For one thing, you have to sign your life away. You have a whole list of things you have to sign off to be able to accept that prescription."
And she said, asking to replace a lost pill or using a new pharmacy puts her medication at risk.
"They will blacklist you, literally, and you will not be able to fill your prescriptions."
Her prescription calls for Percocet, but she receives the generic form of Oxycodone.
Over the last few months, she believes her last two prescriptions didn't just look different.
"Now, these are the pills I felt I got relief from," she said about an oblong-shaped pill.
She then took a smaller, round pill out of a separate bottle.
"This pill gave me no relief whatsoever whenever I would take it."
Could these two generic Opioid pills be different in some way?
We took them to Southeast Missouri State University Chemistry Professor Jim McGill to find out.
"We'll take some powder from those tablets, dissolve it in a liquid, and inject it into this instrument," McGill said. "This instrument will separate out all of the components and it will give us a signal based on how much of each component is there. We can use that signal then to determine the purity or the strength of the tablets."
Pills on the streets
There's a dangerous new way dealers are getting the pills they need to sell on the streets.
"One person had taken a certain pill on Monday and woke up on Wednesday."
SEMO Task Force Officer Mike Alford said that unsettling tip in 2016 led him to an apartment in downtown Cape Girardeau.
"We were able to get a search warrant for the guy's property and found, I believe it was, over 1,900 pills."
Police arrested Brandon K. Donner. He later pleaded guilty to felony drug charges.
But it wasn't just the number of pills that took drug agents by surprise.
"We thought they were just Oxycodone pills," Alford said of the evidence collected during that search warrant. "So, we processed them under our old way, sent them into the crime lab. And we later were aware that they were Oxycodone pills, but they had been mixed with Fentanyl."
Mark McClendon heads up the SEMO Drug Task Force.
"The Fentanyl is, you know, I think it's like 50 times more powerful than morphine," he said. "It's more powerful than heroin."
That's why they're known nationally as "death pills." But, you can't just buy them. Someone has to make them.
"The pills had been pressed locally," Alford said. "But the Fentanyl came from out of the country."
So, somebody in southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau even, was pressing their own pills.
"One hundred percent in Cape Girardeau. Yes."
While authorities say the majority of local pill cases involve pure Opioids sold for a profit, McClendon said these dangerously altered pills are a growing concern.
"I think that those cases are probably increasing a little bit, for definitely the last six months to a year."
Fentanyl is so dangerous, we recently told you how the Missouri State Highway patrol changed the way officers test drugs in the field.
"You know, that's the biggest thing that we want. We want our officers to go home at night," McClendon said.
Alford realizes now, that 2016 bust exposed him and his team.
"I was very surprised. I was also concerned for my guys because we are all around this powder."
Luckily, those officers were not hurt by exposure to the Fentanyl laced into those homemade pills.
Meantime, Brandon Donner now faces federal charges for allegedly distributing a liquid Fentanyl hybrid considered even more dangerous than the real thing.
Pill test results
We went back to Dr. McGill's office on Thursday morning to find out what his testing revealed.
"Based on the labeling, our testing indicated that everything that was supposed to be in those two tablets was in there," McGill said. "Nothing that wasn't supposed to be there was there. And the active ingredient, Oxycodone, was present in both tablets in statistically the same amount."
When asked specifically if the pills were the same strength, McGill said, "yes."
Heartland authorities say, based on the arrests they make, prescription pain pills are the third most-common street drug they encounter behind marijuana and methamphetamine. Most pill sellers get their supplies using their own prescriptions, or by stealing prescription medication from family or friends.
The national battle against the Opioid crisis continues. In fact, there are an estimated $6 billion in the Senate's budget plan dedicated to the opioid and mental health crisis over the next two years.