Legislature unanimously passes bipartisan bill targeting fentanyl pill press operations

In what may be the strongest piece of legislation to battle Washington’s overdose crisis to come out of the Legislature this session, the state Senate has approved House Bill 1209, also known as Tyler’s bill. The bill previously passed the House. In both chambers, the measure was passed unanimously.

The bill is on its way to Governor Inslee’s desk. Should the governor sign the bill House Bill 1209 would make knowingly having or using pill presses with the intent to make counterfeit pills a Class C felony under state law.

Drug dealers use these devices to make counterfeit Percocet and other pills packed with illicit fentanyl flooding the local black market. They are also fueling the drug crisis and rising overdose rates in the region.

“These bogus pills look like the real deal down to the federal number imprinted on them, and just one can be deadly,” said Rep. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, who cosponsored the bill proposed by Democratic Rep. Mari Leavitt.

The bill is named in honor of Tyler Lee Yates, a close family friend of Griffey’s who died in January 2022 at 31 years old after taking what he believed to be a legitimate Percocet.

“Tyler was the son of a firefighter with whom I came up the ranks with. He was a good kid struggling to get relief from chronic pain he suffered after a motorcycle crash, and like many in similar situations – he turned to the black market,” said Griffey. He was at a local casino and bought what he believed to be a legitimate Percocet. Law enforcement would later view security camera footage and watch as Tyler died in that parking lot after taking one pill he believed to be a legitimate, federally-regulated pharmaceutical that was made with a pill press and full of unregulated amounts of one of the most addictive and deadly drugs on the planet – fentanyl.”

“The industrious monsters making and pedaling these fake pills are playing Russian Roulette with all lives,” said Griffey. “And now, they are targeting our youngest, most vulnerable – our children, making these pills in rainbow colors to look like children’s cereal to market to kids with deadly consequences.”

House Bill 1209 should be considered a first step toward cracking down on anyone knowingly trafficking pill presses or the counterfeit pills they create, according to Griffey. 

“I applaud my colleagues in both chambers for their overwhelming support for Tyler’s bill,” said Griffey. “But we have much more to do to protect Washington families from these monsters flooding our streets with this deadly, highly-addictive drug.”

Please click the image below to watch Rep. Griffey’s floor speech on the Tyler Lee Yates bill.

READ: Justice Department announces indictments against more than two dozen people connected to a massive pill press operation in Shelton.

READ: Justice Department charges Marysville, WA couple in illegal pill press operation

Background on Fentanyl-filled counterfeit pills and pill press operations

Bad actors using pill presses and die molds to make counterfeit medications is not new. In fact, for over a decade, there have been traffickers pedaling imitation cancer drugs filled with substances such as acetaminophen. The use of pill presses and molds to make counterfeit Percocet and other prescription opioids first came to light in the U.S. around 2015, when the first reports of such fake pills came in.

But the proliferation of counterfeit pills has exploded in the years since being reported in all 50 states in 2019. The even bigger concern, in 2019, a sampling by the Drug Enforcement Agency of seized counterfeit tablets nationwide found that 27 percent contained a lethal dose of fentanyl. In 2022, the DEA reported six of every ten pills on the street were laced with potentially fatal doses of fentanyl.

A lethal dosage of fentanyl for a non-regular opioid user is just 2 milligrams – equal to roughly a few grains of salt – and much smaller than a lethal dose of heroin which is 30 milligrams, according to the DEA.

The synthetically produced fentanyl used in these pills is often imported from China, India, and Mexico. It has been sold on the dark web along with pill presses, dye molds, or similar items that can now make pills that look the same as one you would get from the pharmacy.

These fake pills are causing record overdoses because the fentanyl is synthetically made – not regulated as medical fentanyl is – so both the purity of the synthetic fentanyl being made and the amount of it packed into fake pills varies wildly. That leaves the person taking the fake pill – whether they know it is fake or not – in the dark about how potent the pill they are about to swallow is and whether taking just one will kill them.

The existing opioid crisis made this an attractive market for foreign and domestic drug traffickers who locally can set up shop in a garage with as little as a $1,000 investment and potentially turn that into millions of dollars worth of pills at the street level.

Federal and state law

There are a variety of laws in place around pill presses and pill press molds that are used to make fake pills look legitimate.

On the national level, having a mold intending to create a counterfeit pill is illegal, but pill presses themselves are not.

Under federal law, legitimate users of these devices are required to self-report their possession, use or transfer.

The DEA and Customs and Border Protection must electrically approve any foreign importation of pill presses.

But according to a 2019 DEA threat assessment, traffickers circumvent that law by misrepresenting or intentionally mislabeling the devices or parts of the devices. Even when they are brought in officially, there is little to no regulatory oversight.

Only a handful of states have passed laws regarding pill presses, with Florida passing the strongest law in 2018. Previous efforts to pass a law like House Bill 1209 – the Tyler Lee Yates bill – have failed in Washington state.

Many experts say the explosion of overdose death resulting from synthetic fentanyl-filled counterfeit pills will only continue without strong action at the state and federal levels, including much more substantial penalties for those trafficking and using pill presses.

In March, U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger reintroduced her bipartisan legislation to crack down on narcotics traffickers using illicit pill presses for manufacturing counterfeit drugs. It has failed twice before.

For more information

Read: The 2021 report from the Partnership for Safe Medicines on the proliferation of pill presses here.

Read: The 2019 report from the Partnership for Safe Medicines on the proliferation of pill presses here.

Read: The 2019 DEA Threat Assessment Report here.

Read: King County overdose dashboard here.

Watch: Rep. Dan Griffey’s legislative video update, “We need to talk about fentanyl” here.

###

Washington State House Republican Communications
houserepublicans.wa.gov