Surge in Fake Painkillers as Opioid Prescribing Drops

By Pat Anson, Editor

A decline in the abuse and diversion of prescription pain medication is being offset by a “massive surge” in the use of heroin and counterfeit painkillers, according to a comprehensive new report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The DEA’s 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment paints a stark picture of the illicit drug trade in prescription medication, fentanyl, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine.  Interestingly, the 194-page report doesn’t even mention kratom, the herbal supplement the DEA attempted to ban in August before postponing its decision after a public outcry.

"Sadly, this report reconfirms that opioids such as heroin and fentanyl - and diverted prescription pain pills - are killing people in this country at a horrifying rate," said DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg. "We face a public health crisis of historic proportions. Countering it requires a comprehensive approach that includes law enforcement, education, and treatment." 

The diversion of prescription opioids has fallen dramatically, according to the DEA report, from 19.5 million dosage units in 2011 to 9.1 million in 2015. Less than one percent of the opioids legally prescribed are being diverted to the black market.

The agency says the prescribing and abuse of opioid medication is also dropping, along with the number of admissions to treatment centers for painkiller addiction.

“With the slightly declining abuse levels of CPDs (controlled prescription drugs), data indicates there is an increase in heroin use, as some CPD abusers have begun using heroin as a cheaper alternative to the high price of illicit CPDs or when they are unable to obtain prescription drugs,” the report states.

The increased use of heroin coincided with federal and state efforts to reduce the prescribing of opioids. So did the appearance of counterfeit pain medication made with illicit fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.  

“In 2015, there was a marked surge in the availability of illicit fentanyl pressed into counterfeit prescription opioids, such as oxycodone. In many cases, the shape, colorings, and markings were consistent with authentic prescription medications and the presence of fentanyl was only detected after laboratory analysis,” the DEA said. “The rise of fentanyl in counterfeit pill form exacerbates the fentanyl epidemic. Prescription pill abuse has fewer stigmas and can attract new, inexperienced drug users, creating more fentanyl-dependent individuals.”

As Pain News Network has reported, the number of fentanyl related deaths has surged around the country. In Massachusetts – where there has been a marked effort to reduce opioid prescribing -- three out of four opioid overdoses are now being linked to illicit fentanyl.

In Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, the problem is even worse. The medical examiner there estimates 770 people will die from either fentanyl or heroin overdoses by the end of the year, ten times the number of overdose deaths from prescription opioids.

The DEA predicts the problem will only grow worse.

“Fentanyl will remain an extremely dangerous public safety threat while the current production of non-pharmaceutical fentanyl continues,” the agency warns. “In 2015 traffickers expanded the historical fentanyl markets as evidenced by a massive surge in the production of counterfeit tablets containing the drug, and manipulating it to appear as black tar heroin. The fentanyl market will continue to expand in the future as new fentanyl products attract additional users.”

Those who do manage to get their hands on prescription painkillers for recreational use are mostly getting them from friends or relatives. Less than 25% of the painkillers that are used non-medically are obtained directly from doctors.

Over two-thirds of the painkillers that are abused are bought, stolen or obtained for free from friends and relatives.

Despite the shifting nature of the opioid epidemic, government efforts to stop it continue to focus on punishing doctors who overprescribe and reducing patient access to opioids.

“I have several chronic pain conditions that I was managing with a doctor’s care and Norco,” one reader recently emailed Pain News Network. “The DEA closed his office out of the blue. I was left with no doctor, no medical records, and the responsibility of weaning myself off what meds I had left on my own. 



“My life is in shambles and I live in constant pain with no mercy. How much medical proof of real pain does it take? They just run me around to see different doctors. All the money and time wasted. I can't imagine living the rest of my life like this.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 52 Americans die every day from overdoses of prescription opioids, although the accuracy of its estimates has been questioned. Some deaths caused by heroin and illicit fentanyl are wrongly reported as prescription drug overdoses. Other deaths may have been counted twice.