Nearly One Million Poison Pills in 30 Days: Counterfeit Pills Fuel U.S. Drug Deaths

Watch our video about how counterfeit pills are contributing to the drug crisis in the United States, and how they threaten Americans.

The newest numbers from the CDC show drug deaths up 24%

The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) released provisional drug death numbers for the 12 months ending June 2020. As of March 1, 2021, NCHS has tallied more than 83,000 deaths. When all data is in, the agency expects fatalities to rise to 86,000—more than 24% higher than the previous 12 months.

These tragic numbers reflect all drug related deaths, but as with previous years, fentanyl and related synthetic opioids are still the largest contributors.

The isolation of the pandemic is a big factor in this increase, but there’s another one: People are dying because they are receiving fatal drugs they don't expect. This situation is most apparent with counterfeit pills, where buyers often believe that they’re taking real prescription medicine, but instead are poisoned with ingredients like fentanyl or isotonitazene. 

Source: CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (Click the images to see details.)

The country is flooded with counterfeit pills

Police in St. John, Canada seized this counterfeit dilaudid made with a dangerous new synthetic opioid, isotonitazene.

In just the last 30 days, law enforcement seized nearly a million counterfeit pills, as well as seven pill presses. Public sources announced 12 deaths as a result of the pills. The most reported of these was 16-year-old Sammy Chapman, the son of Oprah Winfrey Network television host Dr. Laura Berman. Sammy naively bought Xanax on Snapchat and died of fentanyl poisoning in Santa Monica, California on February 8th. There were also deaths in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Washington.

Fake Adderall, Xanax, and opioid painkillers poisoned with methamphetamine, fentanyl or fentanyl analogues have been around since at least 2015. More recently, the fake pill market has diversified. Last year, police in Arizona and Ohio found fake pills in the shape of metformin, baby aspirin and Aleve. Authorities in the U.S., U.K. and Canada have reported counterfeit pills made with isotonitazene (a synthetic opioid) and the benzodiazepines clonazolam and etizolam.

Given this situation, it is important to get the word out: make sure your family and friends, young and old, know that any pill that you didn’t buy from a licensed U.S. pharmacy could kill you.

Help us work for change

Recently, the federal government worked with domain name sellers to shut down 30 websites that were selling opioids illegally. That pilot project was very effective, but it is not currently required by law. It should be.

Furthermore, stiffer penalties for using pill presses to make these deadly drugs would put drug traffickers in jail for longer.

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Sources for this week's video

Working Together, FDA, NTIA, and Domain Registries Take Down 30 Websites Illegally Selling Opioids,” The National Law Review, February 9, 2021.

Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts,” National Center for Health Statistics. Page last reviewed February 17, 2021.

Allison Inserro, “Fentanyl Driving Overdose Deaths in the U.S., CDC Says,” The American Journal of Managed Care, December 13, 2018.

Nick Watson, “Gainesville Man Gets 15 Years in Prison for Drug Case That Left Friend Dead,” Forsythe County News, December 22, 2015.

PANT Warns of Mimic Pills Laced with Fentanyl Circulating in Prescott Area,” The Daily Courier, August 18, 2020.

Sarah Goldenberg, “Meth, Spiked Drugs and Overdoses Stir Concern Among Ohio Authorities Confronted with New Battles Brought on by Pandemic,” 19 News,  August 25, 2020.

Mike Cameron, “Dangerous New Street Drug Found in Two Maritime Provinces: Police,” CTV News, March 5, 2020.

Lyn Riddle, “New Drug Showing up on SC Streets Causes at Least 2 Deaths, Including Drugmaker,” The State, February 10, 2021.

Connor Gordon, “Glasgow Man Jailed After Police Raid Found £28,000 of Blue Plague' Valium Tablets,Glasgow Evening Times, February 22, 2021.

Pill seizures and poisonings in the news, January 28 - February 23, 2021

“Ten Indicted for Fentanyl Trafficking,” U.S. Department of Justice, January 28, 2021,

Josh Dulaney, “Marijuana, Mushrooms and Guns in Norman. OBN Bust also Leads to Arrest, Seizure of Counterfeit Xanax Pills,” The Oklahoman, January 29, 2021,

“Multi-Agency Enhanced Emphasis Highway Patrol Leads to Seven Arrests; Police Seize Meth, Heroin, Fentanyl and Firearms,” Big Country News, January 29, 2021,

“Morgan County Sheriff’s Office Searching for Man Wanted on Drug Trafficking,” WAFF 48, February 1, 2021,

“Undercover Operation Nets Hundreds of Counterfeit Pills, Drug Money in Marion County,” WTVC 9, February 3, 2021,

“Two Charged After Camden County Search Warrant Finds 100 Fentanyl Pills,” Lake News Online, February 3, 2021,

“Burlington Drug Overdose Believed to be Caused by Fentanyl-laced Drugs,” KGMI, February 3, 2021,

“Fentanyl-laced Pills Lead to Overdose of Bellingham Teen,” KGMI, February 3, 2021,

Marilyn Baer, “Hudson County-based drug-trafficking ring nabbed,” Hudson Reporter, February 4, 2021,

“Mexican Drug Traffickers Charged With Conspiring to Import Large Quantities of Narcotics into the United States Based on Seizure of 2.5 Tons of Methamphetamine and 100,000 Fentanyl Pills,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 5, 2021,

“Charges Laid Following Largest Single Seizure of Fentanyl in Niagara History,” Niagara Regional Police, February 6, 2021,

Deanna Weninger, “Minnesota Police Warn of Pills Laced with Fentanyl After 4 Die from Apparent Overdoses,” Grand Forks Herald, February 7, 2021,

Jeff Lehr, “Ozarks Drug Enforcement Team Serves Five Search Warrants,” Joplin Globe, February 7, 2021,

Christi Carras, “TV Therapist Laura Berman Mourns Son’s Fatal Overdose: ‘I Was So Furious’,” Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2021,

Lyn Riddle, “New Drug Showing up on SC Streets Causes at Least 2 Deaths, Including Drugmaker,” The State, February 10, 2021,

Kilat Fitzgerald, “RPD Recovers About 6,000 Pills Suspected to be Laced With Fentanyl,” KTTC, February 10, 2021,

Phil Helsel, “$12 million in Drugs Seized in ‘Heroin Packaging Mill' Bust in Queens,” NBC News, February 10, 2021,

“Sacramento Man Charged with Fentanyl Offense,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 11, 2021,

Avery Williams, “Troopers Bust Cleveland Man With $45,000 of Suspected Fentanyl Pills, 3 Guns During Richland County Traffic Stop,” 19 News, February 11, 2021,

Bob D’Angelo, “3 Men Arrested After Arizona Traffic Stops Yield $3.75m in Fentanyl Pills,” KIRO 7, February 12, 2021,

“U.S. Attorney Wrigley Announces the Arrest of a Taylor, Michigan Man for Fentanyl Distribution,” U.S. Department of Justice,  February 12, 2021,

Andrew Cass, “March Trial Date Set for Kirtland Men Facing Federal Drug Charges,” The News Herald, February 15, 2021,

“Three Men Charged in Conspiracy to Distribute Fentanyl, Methamphetamine and Cocaine into New Jersey,” U.S. Department of Justice, February 16, 2021,

“CBP Officers Seize $14.3 Million of Hard Drugs, Weapons, Ammunition and Arrest a Man Wanted for Murder,” U.S. Customs and Border Protections, February 16, 2021,

“9 Pounds of Opioid Pills Seized in Vehicle Search,” Hickory Daily Record, February 16, 2021,

Todd Cummins, “A Lima Man Arrested After Drug Investigation by West Central Ohio Crime Task Force,” Your Hometown Stations, February 18, 2021,

“Deputies Seize 11,000 Fentanyl Pills and Make Two Arrests in Drug Trafficking Investigation,” KGET, February 18, 2021,

Joyce Lupiani, “Approximately 50K Counterfeit Oxycodone Pills Seized in Las Vegas,” KTNV, February 19, 2021,

Cydeni Carter, “Over 5,000 Pills Believed to be Fentanyl Found Inside Glow Worm Toy Bought in El Mirage Thrift Store,” ABC 15, February 20, 2021,

Madeleine Hagan, “After Three Drug Overdose Deaths in The Tri-cities, Local Experts Offer Advice to Prevent Addiction,” YakTriNews, February 22, 2021,

Bailey Hurley, “Records: California Man Sold Lethal Fentanyl Pills to Jamestown Man, Charged with Homicide,” Valley News Live, February 22, 2021,

“Troopers Find 26 Lbs of Meth, Suspected Fentanyl in I-80 Traffic Stop,” KSNB Local 4, February 23, 2021,