Houston DEA head says fentanyl is the ‘biggest threat we’ve ever seen’

Fentanyl is a drug impacting every level of society, according to the special agent-in-charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Houston office.

Millions of counterfeit pills are being sold on the black market with more than half laced with fentanyl, according to the DEA.

In 2022, the Houston office of the DEA seized enough fatal doses of fentanyl to kill every single person in the greater Houston area. This is in addition to the 674,000 counterfeit pills seized by the office last year.

“As a mom myself, it was scary to think that children have access to these pills,” said Jamie Vasquez, assoc. director of the DEA’s regional lab in Dallas.

Vasquez said more than 20% of the counterfeit pills examined at the Dallas lab are laced with fentanyl.

“The increase in fentanyl that we’ve seen over the last year or so has been monumental,” said Vasquez. “Just two milligrams can cause a potential death.”

For reference, two milligrams are the size of the tip of a pencil.

DEA officials said many buying pills on the black market have no idea they’re ingesting fentanyl.

Special agent-in-charge of the DEA’s Houston office, Daniel Comeaux, said unless a person buys from a reputable pharmacy, there’s now a high chance they’re getting a fentanyl-laced pill.

“Right now, you have a lot of pills out there that are fake pills,” said Comeaux. “Someone could think they’re taking an Adderall, but actually they’re taking just compound ingredients with fentanyl in it.”

Comeaux said the DEA estimates 60% of pills found on the black market are now laced with fentanyl.

“When you buy from the internet and social media, or when you buy from a street corner, and unfortunately, when you buy at a school or at college campuses, that’s what we’re talking about,” Comeaux said.

A single moment of curiosity can be fatal, as in the case of Joshua Gillihan, a 14-year-old high school freshman living in Cypress.

“We think he got it at school,” said Kim Gillihan, Joshua’s mother. “He thought he was getting an oxy or a Percocet and the only thing in his system was fentanyl. He got pure fentanyl.”

Kim knew her son had experimented with marijuana.

“We really laid down the law. We were like, ‘If you want your high school years to be what you expect them to be then we have got to get on the right track,” said Kim.

However, Kim said she did not think fentanyl was as much of a threat as other drugs.

“I didn’t really hear of anything happening in our area, and so it seemed like it was something that was far away,” said Kim.

Comeaux said fentanyl is anything but far away.

“With these pills, it covers every social-economic level. From the poor to the rich, everyone is taking these pills,” said Comeaux.

Katrice Galloway lost her sister to fentanyl poisoning.

“It hurts, it hurts really bad. I think about her every day,” Galloway said.

Galloway’s sister, Karen Jackson, was a 58-year-old Ph.D. living in Houston.

“She had some issues with knee and back problems and the opiate addiction, she just got addicted to the opiates,” Galloway said.

“I could accept a lot of things, but it was the fentanyl. It was the fentanyl,” said Kim. “I lost my sister because of the opiate addiction and the pill laced with fentanyl.”

The deaths of Gillihan and Jackson highlight the pervasive impact of fentanyl.

“They might make a mistake, one mistake can cost them their life right now,” said Comeaux.

“In your experience have you ever seen a drug pose quite a threat like this?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“No, I think this is the biggest threat we’ve ever seen,” said Comeaux.

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that the majority of fentanyl is coming from the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels. Milgram also said the ages of victims of fentanyl poisoning range from 17 months to 70 years old. In Texas, the Department of State Health Services reports the largest age group dying from this drug is between 18 and 44.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, fentanyl can go by the street names: Apache, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Jackpot, Murder 8 and Tango & Cash.

About the Authors:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”