Nebraska police have discovered fake prescription pills laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl in the city of Omaha, just over a week after the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public alert warning Mexican drug cartels are making them in “mass quantities” with the intention of selling them to users throughout North America.
The DEA did not specify what pills were being faked, but photos of what it said it had seized showed mostly pills which are baby blue in color and stamped with the letter “M,” on one side, and the number “30” on the other. They appear similar to a brand of prescription painkiller oxycodone hydrochloride, and the DEA warned against the circulation of the counterfeit pills which contain “potentially lethal doses of fentanyl.”
“Instead of having the active ingredient in it for oxycodone or OxyContin, it would have another ingredient like fentanyl,” Sgt. Dave Bianchi of the Omaha Police Department told KETV. “The people making pills in the clandestine lab probably don’t care about the quality.”
“The scary part of not knowing what is in there, could be something more deadly than fentanyl. It could be rat poison, or it could be anything,” Bianchi added.
Dr. Kenneth Zoucha, director of Addiction Medicine Division at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told the news outlet some of his patients are taking the fake pills because of their accessibility.
“People are very willing to buy those off the street because they can get them,” he said.
According to the DEA, 27 percent of counterfeit pills seized by the government agency contain doses of fentanyl which could be potentially lethal.
“Capitalizing on the opioid epidemic and prescription drug abuse in the United States, drug trafficking organizations are now sending counterfeit pills made with fentanyl in bulk to the United States for distribution,” the DEA’s acting head Uttam Dhillon said in a statement.
Dhillon added that pills containing fentanyl and fentanyl-laced heroin cause thousands of deaths every year in the United States.
Nearly 50,000 lives were lost to an opioid-related overdose in 2017. During #TreatmentWeek, clinicians can learn more about #OUD treatment and about obtaining the <ahref=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/buprenorphine?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#buprenorphine waiver.https://t.co/hZFfPosKXe #NIDAMED pic.twitter.com/wR9oVvxJb8
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The opioid crisis, on average, takes the lives of 130 people each day across the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The crisis in the United States has cost the economy at least $631 billion in just four years, according to a report (pdf) released by the Society of Actuaries.
Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the CDC, and as little as 0.25 milligrams of fentanyl absorbed through the skin can be lethal. Illegally made fentanyl is often mixed with heroin or cocaine to increase the euphoric effects of the drugs, the center said—with or without the user’s knowledge.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl, however, has been approved for treating severe pain for conditions such as late-stage cancer and is prescribed by doctors typically through transdermal patches or lozenges.
Reuters and Bowen Xiao contributed to this report.