GREAT BARRINGTON — A high school senior arrested for distributing black market Xanax last week told police he bought "double the dose" counterfeit pills online, according to the police report.
Ethan Morris, 18, was arraigned in Southern Berkshire District Court on Monday, and pleaded not guilty to one count of drug distribution and two counts of drug possession.
Judge William Rota set Morris' pretrial date to March 26. Morris' attorney, Lori Levinson, was present.
Morris, of Housatonic, was arrested Feb. 6 after allegedly selling Alprazolam — the generic form of Xanax — to undercover Great Barrington police officers who had been conducting an investigation after two Monument Mountain Regional High School employees alerted them to the use of "some kind of super Xanax" by students.
"They had heard of students having a more intense reaction to the drug than what was expected," stated the police report.
Pharmaceutical-grade Xanax is a benzodiazepine, known for its tranquilizing effect, and often prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders. It is highly addictive.
Black market Alprazolam is counterfeit in that it can be cut with other ingredients like fentanyl, which is cheap, and up to 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
It is also known as "fake Xanax," referred to as a "bar," and is often "double-pressed," meaning it is twice the size of a real Xanax.
The size and potency of a counterfeit pill can be changed with a procedure called "dry pressing."
The administration at Monument High warned parents in an email the day after Morris' arrest of the "relatively widespread" use of a "dry press" form of Xanax that was being bought and used at school.
"Xanax Dry Press often comes in bars that contain 3-4 times the amount of Benzodiazepine as prescribed Xanax," the email said. "Fake Xanax bars are produced in home labs with substitute ingredients that may include chalk, baking powder, Hydrochloric Acid, ammonia, rat poison and fentanyl, a deadly analgesic."
Police say that, in a recorded interview after the arrest, Morris told police that the Alprazolam he was selling has "double the dose" of pharmaceutical Xanax.
Police also said Morris told them he received the pills by mail through the U.S. Postal Service after buying them on the "dark web," or darknet, a part of the internet hosted within an encrypted network and accessible only through specialized anonymity-providing tools. This is fast becoming the new dark alley for drug sales using cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, according to an article in The Economist.
"He bought 1,100 pills and stated he had sold them to 50 to 100 people, and later stated that number was closer to 20-50 people ... He wouldn't sell to anyone under 18," police said.
The officers also said that Morris told them he had purchased the pills for $750, and was charging $5 per pill, but would drop it to $2 per pill with the purchase of 100 or more.
In an interview with police, Morris denied selling pills at Monument.
But someone, police say, tipped them off that Morris had been dealing there.
That began a Facebook messenger exchange between an undercover officer and Morris, which led to a meetup in Housatonic, where Morris agreed to sell the officer 20 pills for $100.
Morris' iPhone was seized, and a bedroom search consented to by Morris led to the seizure of his laptop, flash drive and a Ziploc bag with "12 halves of pills."
The investigation revealed something else. On Jan. 16, Stockbridge police investigating a rollover car accident found suspected Xanax pills along with alcohol and marijuana in the car. One of the four young women, ages 18 and 19, involved in the crash had admitted to taking of a Xanax pill, after which she said she had blacked out for two days.
Police say the driver and other women may have been under the influence of Xanax, as well, and sent the pills from the vehicle, as well as those sold by Morris to the State Police Crime Lab to determine if they are a match.
The situation has shaken the Monument High and larger community, and heightened awareness about this new threat.
Monument Assistant Principal Scott Annand could not be reached for comment Monday.
But Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon said the pills were a frightening development.
"This scares us quite a bit, and I hope everybody takes it very seriously."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871