The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is warning the public of a “significant nationwide surge” in potentially lethal counterfeit prescription pills.
In a rare public safety alert released Monday, the DEA says Americans are being killed at an “unprecedented rate” by pills manufactured in labs and deceptively sold by criminal networks. Those pills, according to the federal counternarcotics agency, are disguised as legitimate prescription drugs but contain lethal amounts of fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. While fentanyl can be prescribed by doctors in rare cases of chronic pain, its main distribution is through illegal channels.
The DEA says more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills have been seized so far in 2021, more than the total seized in the previous two years; and lab testing shows a dramatic rise in the number of pills containing at least two milligrams of fentanyl, which is considered a lethal dose.
The counterfeit pills are made to look like real prescription opioid medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and alprazolam; or stimulants like amphetamines, the DEA warns. The pills are often sold on social media and other online platforms, making them available to anyone with a smartphone, including children.
The vast majority of counterfeit pills brought into the United States are produced in Mexico, and China is supplying chemicals for the manufacturing of fentanyl in Mexico, according to the alert.
“The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis of overdose deaths fueled by illegally manufactured fentanyl and methamphetamine,” said DEA administrator Anne Milgram in a press release, adding that the agency finds that two out of every five fake pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose.
“DEA is focusing resources on taking down the violent drug traffickers causing the greatest harm and posing the greatest threat to the safety and health of Americans. Today, we are alerting the public to this danger so that people have the information they need to protect themselves and their children,” she said.
The DEA hasn’t issued such a nationwide alert in the past six years. The most recent one, issued in March 2015, also warned Americans of a huge spike in fentanyl overdoses, saying that DEA agents were seeing an alarming amount of heroin laced with fentanyl.
Chemical flows from China have fueled the fentanyl crisis in the United States, according to a report (pdf) by Congress’ U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission.
“China is a global source of fentanyl and other illicit substances because the country’s vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries are weakly regulated and poorly monitored,” the Commission explained in its February 2017 report. “Chinese law enforcement officials have struggled to adequately regulate the thousands of chemical and pharmaceutical facilities operating legally and illegally in the country, leading to increased production and export of illicit chemicals and drugs.”
“Chinese chemical exporters utilize various methods to covertly ship drugs to the Western hemisphere, including sending illicit materials through a chain of forwarding systems, mislabeling narcotic shipments, and modifying chemicals so they are not controlled in the United States,” it added.