There is widespread fear within the law enforcement and medical communities that the proliferation of counterfeit opioid pills have been sickening and killing people around the U.S., reports the Washington Post. Counterfeit medicines made with fentanyl have already been found in 80% of the states in the country with deaths in 16 states. As prescription painkillers become harder to get, drug cartels have seized on the opportunity to flood the streets with fake drugs made with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin.
The Washington Post stated that people who think they are purchasing legitimate prescription drugs believe they are safer than illicit drugs like heroin. However, as the six residents of Macon, GA discovered this past June, pills sold on the street can be just as deadly as anything else. Although law enforcement has warned about the dangers of purchasing pills on the street, residents in Houston and Bibb Counties overdosed on the same type of counterfeit pills as the residents in Macon had two months previously.
According to the DEA, fentanyl is cheaper to produce than either heroin or oxycodone. Just over two pounds of illicit fentanyl can produce 1 million counterfeit pills, bringing in a profit of between $10 million to $20 million. Officials interviewed by the Washington Post said drug cartels purchased the pills or the chemicals needed to make them from companies in China. In 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection confiscated only two pill presses, an essential tool for making counterfeit medicine, at the Port of Los Angeles. In 2017, pill press seizures from just the Los Angeles Port have grown to almost 400.
Counterfeit pills have many avenues into the country. In 2017, the DEA in Arizona seized at least 70,000 counterfeit pills made with fentanyl as they came across the border, including one bust in August where 30,000 fake fentanyl pills were found in one vehicle. Some people, like Trevor Harden of Chamberlain, SD, ordered pills on the dark web. Instead of picking up his package containing 20,000 counterfeit pills made with fentanyl at the local post office, authorities picked him up and charged him with possession with intent to distribute. Authorities also worry about homes being used as pill mills. In Utah, a group lead by Aaron Shamo is thought to have sent 8,000 shipments of counterfeit pills made with fentanyl around the country before they were busted in November 2016.
No one knows how many people counterfeit medicines have hurt or killed. We do know that counterfeit medicines are dangerous and are making the opioid crisis worse.