Users who believe prescription drugs are safe because they are quality-controlled products of a regulated industry could unwittingly end up ingesting potent cocktails of unknown substances. Many pills contain fentanyl, a synthetic drug that is driving a nationwide surge in overdose deaths.
Law enforcement officials and medical professionals say counterfeit opioid pills are flooding the illicit drug market and have been sickening and killing those who are seeking out powerful prescription drugs amid a worsening national opioid crisis, the Washington Post reports. There is widespread fear that users who believe prescription drugs are safe because they are quality-controlled products of a regulated industry could unwittingly end up ingesting potent cocktails of unknown substances. In many places, the pills contain fentanyl, a synthetic drug that is driving a nationwide surge in overdose deaths. The rise of counterfeit pills is partly a consequence of well-intentioned actions taken to prevent overdose deaths. As states enact strict prescription limits and closely monitor doctors, fewer authentic painkillers are available. While some opioid abusers turn directly to heroin or fentanyl, cartels and drug dealers are filling the void with pills they have manufactured to look like the originals.
That trade is lucrative without the need to obtain the tightly controlled pills. One kilogram of illicit fentanyl — far cheaper than heroin or oxycodone — can produce 1 million counterfeit pills, netting $10 million to $20 million, says the Drug Enforcement Administration. The pills are filled with fentanyl analogues — different formulas of the drug concocted to skirt U.S. drug laws — and other chemicals that evade drug screenings and have unknown effects on the human body. The pills or their parts come to the U.S. from either Mexico or China. In Mexico, cartels process the pills and ship them over the southwest border. Chemicals needed to make the pills are bought via the dark web from China. When the chemicals reach the U.S., many of the fake pills are created in home operations, like meth labs that proliferated a decade ago.