Americans are being warned to beware of potentially deadly fake prescription pills that are laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl and the highly addictive stimulant methamphetamine. The counterfeit tablets are linked to a wave of drug overdoses killing unsuspecting users.
In its first warning in six years, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said international and domestic criminal networks were mass-producing fake pills and falsely marketing them as legitimate prescription medication.
“Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram at a news conference in Washington.
The notification was issued last week after the DEA announced it had seized more than 1.8 million fake pills during a two-month undercover operation and had arrested more than 810 people. In a statement, the agency said it had confiscated more than 9.5 million potentially lethal pills in the last year.
“Illicit fentanyl was responsible for nearly three-quarters of the more than 93,000 fatal drug overdoses in the United States in 2020,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. Health officials report fentanyl was responsible for nearly 70,000 of the overdose deaths.
U.S. law enforcement investigators say the majority of counterfeit medication found in America is being made in labs in Mexico using chemicals imported from China. The DEA believes Chinese traffickers have switched from primarily manufacturing finished fentanyl to exporting precursors of the synthetic opioid to Mexican cartels, which then manufacture illicit fentanyl. U.S. officials are now seeking greater cooperation from Mexican law enforcement agencies to disrupt trafficking in the country.
DEA laboratory testing revealed that two out of five fentanyl-laced fake pills seized contained a potentially deadly dose of just 2 milligrams. Fentanyl can be 100 times more powerful than morphine. Drug researchers say a deadly dose of fentanyl is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.
“The fake pills seized were capable of killing more than 700,000 people,” Milgram noted, adding that law enforcement agencies have sought to shut down criminal distribution networks selling tablets that look exactly like name-brand prescription medications. “We are alerting the public to this danger so that people have the information they need to protect themselves and their children.”
The DEA alert said medications prescribed by doctors and dispensed by licensed pharmacists were safe, but pills acquired by other avenues were potentially deadly.
Decades of death
Since 1999, more than 500,000 Americans have died of opioid overdoses, both prescription and nonprescription. Deaths rose in nearly all states, with the highest increases in California, Kentucky, Vermont, South Carolina and West Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The more than 9.5 million fake tablets seized this year represented 430% more than the number seized in 2019. The DEA also confiscated ingredients used to make tens of millions of pills, including more than 4,000 kilograms of methamphetamine.
“The pervasiveness of these illicit drugs, and the fatal overdoses that too often result, is a problem that cuts across America from small towns to big cities and everything in between,” said Monaco.
The most common counterfeit pills are being made to look identical to prescription medications such as Oxycontin, Xanax, Vicodin or stimulants like amphetamines. Investigators say the fake medications are widely available and sold on social media platforms as well as on the streets.
“The illicit drug supply introduces even greater uncertainty about what people are taking, and that contributes to overdoses.” Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, told VOA. “If someone combines fentanyl with heroin or methamphetamine or another illicit product, it can be deadly.”