Acting U.S. Attorney Warns of Increasing Danger of Counterfeit Prescription Opioids Containing Fentanyl

6 mins read
Prescription bottle with backlit Oxycodone tablets. Oxycodone is a generic prescription opioid. A concept of the opioid epidemic crisis

BOISE – Acting U.S. Attorney Rafael M. Gonzalez, Jr. and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent in Charge Frank A. Tarentino III today highlighted the danger that counterfeit prescription pills pose to our community. They seek to warn of the significant nationwide surge in counterfeit pills that are mass-produced by criminal drug networks in labs, deceptively marketed as legitimate prescription pills, and are killing unsuspecting Americans, and Idahoans, at an unprecedented rate.

An estimated 100,306 people died as the result of a drug overdose in the United States from April 2020 through April 2021 and more than 75 percent of those deaths involved an opioid. This is an increase of nearly 28.5 percent year over year. Idaho overdose deaths increased for the third year in a row to 280 with the incidents of overdose nearly 20 times the number of deaths.

Historically, the opioid epidemic began with a rapid increase in the prescribing of opioids starting in the 1990s. It continued when those addicted to opioids began to use heroin because it was cheaper and more readily available. Now, the most recent part of this epidemic is the increase in availability of counterfeit pills. Counterfeit pills are illicitly manufactured in clandestine labs, mostly using fentanyl as the active ingredient, and are made to look like legitimate prescription opioids commonly prescribed to alleviate pain or anxiety. These counterfeit pills are then illegally sold by street drug dealers as Oxycodone, Xanax, Percocet, or other similar drugs. Counterfeit pills are also being sold over the internet and delivered by mail. It is important to note that there is no concern of counterfeit pills entering the legitimate prescription supply chain.

“Prescription opioid abuse has already taken a devastating toll on our community,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Gonzalez. “But we have also seen a terrifying rise in the prevalence of counterfeit prescription pills being sold on the street and online. The public must be aware that while these pills may look like prescription drugs, they likely contain the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.” He went on to emphasize that, “a lethal dosage of fentanyl is just two milligrams, equivalent in size to a few grains of salt, as compared to a lethal dose of heroin at 30 milligrams, and that’s why communities everywhere have tragically experienced more fatal overdoses. That pill you bought off the street could be the last one you ever take.”

Counterfeit pills are incredibly dangerous because these imitation pills often look exactly like prescription Oxycodone in size, shape, color, and markings. In other words, there is no way to tell whether a pill purchased illicitly on the internet or the street is actually Oxycodone or a more powerful drug. The picture below on the left is an image of a legitimate Oxycodone pill. The picture on the right is an image of counterfeit Oxycodone pills.

 

These counterfeit pills have been seized by DEA in every U.S. state in unprecedented quantities. More than 9.5 million counterfeit pills were seized so far this year, which is more than the last two years combined. DEA laboratory testing reveals a dramatic rise in the number of counterfeit pills containing at least two milligrams of fentanyl, which is considered a lethal dose. A deadly dose of fentanyl is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil. “Frankly, if it weren’t for the outstanding work of first responders administering naloxone (an opioid antagonist that rapidly reverse opioid overdose) and saving lives of those who have overdosed, the number of deaths would be much, much higher,” said Gonzalez.

“The availability and seizure of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills has exploded in the region,” said Frank A. Tarentino III, Special Agent In Charge of DEA’s Seattle Field Division. “Criminal drug networks in Mexico are mass-producing fentanyl which is driving the increase in overdose deaths. The DEA and our law enforcement partners are committed to stemming the tide of this surge of lethal pills on our city streets by targeting the criminal networks who are profiteering while causing death in our communities.”

Unless prescription drugs are obtained from an authorized medical provider or pharmacy, the public should not consume or even handle these pills. The synthetic opioids contained in them are often lethal if consumed even if in the smallest amounts. All Idahoans are urged to only use prescription drugs prescribed to them by legitimate health care providers and obtained from their pharmacy. “I’m urging you to share this potentially life-saving message with friends and family today. Help us save a life,” concluded Gonzalez.


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