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Medford man arrested with lethal amount of fentanyl

A Jackson County sheriff's deputy arrests a man on Christmas in White City for allegedly possessing a large quantity of multicolored fentanyl. [Screen grab from JCSO body cam video]

An alleged drug dealer with enough fentanyl to kill up to 46,500 people was arrested in White City on Christmas night but then released from the Jackson County Jail after his bail was set at $7,500.

Tomas William Contento, 42, of Medford had 93 grams of multicolored powdered fentanyl, multiple baggies containing fentanyl, a digital scale and $1,027 cash, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

Dealers have begun adding color to fentanyl to create “rainbow fentanyl” in a bid to appeal to kids and young adults.

Fentanyl is a powerful laboratory-made opioid about 100 times more deadly than arsenic. Two milligrams of pure fentanyl can kill an average adult, and there are 1,000 milligrams in one gram.

According to a probable cause affidavit, on Christmas at about 9:50 p.m., a sheriff’s office deputy on routine patrol in White City discovered a driver passed out behind the wheel of a Subaru in front of Fast and Easy Mart along Antioch Road in White City. The market was closed and there was no one else in the parking lot. The vehicle was parked diagonally across multiple parking spots, according to the affidavit.

The deputy was initially unable to wake up Contento, the driver. The deputy saw large quantities of fentanyl on Contento’s lap and called for backup, said the sheriff’s office, which distributed body cam video Thursday of the arrest with a press release about the case.

Due to the risk that Contento was under the influence of intoxicants and could try to flee, the deputy placed a spike strip in front of the Subaru. Backup deputies arrived minutes later. Deputies were able to wake him up, take possession of the drugs and arrest Contento, according to the sheriff’s office.

It appeared that Contento had been in the midst of selling drugs on Christmas when he passed out behind the wheel, according to the affidavit.

“Tomas’ phone rang numerous times while we were on the scene,” the deputy who found Contento wrote in the affidavit. “The same person messaged Tomas saying, ‘Be there in two minutes’ as if they were meeting. As I was on scene, a truck pulled into the parking lot and quickly left. There were no open businesses in the area.”

Contento was arraigned on two counts of unlawful possession of a controlled substance Tuesday in Jackson County Circuit Court. One of the counts alleges he was in possession of dealer quantities of fentanyl, cash, a scale and materials used to package drugs for sale, according to court records.

A judge set Contento’s bail at $7,500. Court paperwork filed Thursday showed a relative posted a security deposit and got him released from jail. People typically have to post 10% of a bail amount, which in this case would have been $750.

The sheriff’s office runs the jail.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler said jail staff can’t control the bail amounts set by judges.

Even if a judge had set a higher bail for Contento than he or someone else could pay, Contento would likely have been released eventually due to overcrowding, Sickler said.

“We don’t have the room. People say, ‘What’s the point?’ For me, it doesn’t mean we can’t try to at least make arrests,” Sickler said.

Jackson County voters soundly defeated a 2020 proposal to raise property taxes to pay for a larger jail and the increased costs of operating a bigger facility.

Fentanyl dealers sometimes face higher bail amounts designed to keep them in jail longer.

In February, Brian Dee Forbes, 52, of Medford was arrested and held on $500,000 bail after the near fatal overdose of a local woman. Police found 70 grams of fentanyl, a gun and other drugs at his home, according to the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement Team.

His bail was later reduced by a judge to $50,000 and he was released from jail in March after he posted a $5,000 deposit, according to court records.

This month, Forbes was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to manufacture and delivery of a controlled substance, delivery of heroin, being a felon in possession of a firearm and fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, according to court records.

Sickler said fentanyl is becoming increasingly popular in Jackson County and across the country.

“It’s dangerous. The stronger it is, the more desirable it is. That’s the scary thing,” he said.

Although it can kill customers, dealers are increasingly turning to fentanyl because it’s easier to mix chemicals together in an illegal lab than grow opium poppies and process them into heroin. Dealers can easily traffic thousands of doses of fentanyl because the drug is small and easy to hide.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has launched a “One pill can kill” campaign to warn people about the potency of all illicit drugs and counterfeit prescription pills, which can be laced with fentanyl.

Adding to the danger, Oregon voters decriminalized user amounts of drugs such as fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine when they approved Measure 110 in 2020. A person caught with a user amount can get a $100 ticket.

However, the user amount of fentanyl in Oregon is set at anything less than 5 grams, according to the sheriff’s office.

In its pure form, 5 grams of fentanyl can kill up to 2,500 people, according to DEA data on lethal drug doses.

Sickler said it doesn’t make sense that someone with 4.9 grams of fentanyl faces only a $100 ticket. That would be enough to kill up to 2,450 people.

“Under Measure 110, having less than 5 grams is less egregious than if you don’t wear a seat belt in your own car. We scratch our heads in law enforcement. It’s messed up and doesn’t make sense, but we don’t make the laws,” Sickler said.

Sickler said he doesn’t support Measure 110’s decriminalization of drugs like heroin, meth and cocaine, but the decriminalization of fentanyl is especially dangerous.

“I definitely would like to see changes. I feel that fentanyl was an oversight. It got overlooked about how prevalent it would become,” he said.

Sickler said he wants to work with the Oregon Legislature to reform Measure 110. Although he would like to see it repealed, he doesn’t think that will happen.

“It feels like we’ve had an opening of the flood gates and we’re trying to hang on for dear life with fentanyl and other drugs and overdoses,” Sickler said.

He urged anyone with substance use disorder to get addiction treatment.

Overdose deaths jumped to 91 in Jackson County in 2021, up from 41 deaths in 2020 and 16 in 2019, according to data from the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office.

People now are more likely to die from drug overdoses than suicides, car crashes or homicides — the other major categories of sudden, preventable death investigated by the medical examiner’s office.

In 2021, a record 107,622 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses. Drug poisonings are the leading killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 45, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you or someone you know suffers from addiction, call the Lines for Life substance use disorder helpline at 1-800-923-4357 or see linesforlife.org. Phone support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You also can text RecoveryNow to 839863 between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. daily.

Local providers of addiction treatment include OnTrack Rogue Valley and Addictions Recovery Center.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.