By Pat Anson, Editor
Federal prosecutors this week filed charges against an alleged smuggler caught at the California-Mexico border with nearly 1,200 fake oxycodone pills, the latest sign that Mexican drug cartels are targeting pain patients in the U.S.
The pills were made with illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and can be lethal in very small doses. Counterfeit fentanyl pills are blamed for 11 deaths and dozens of overdoses in recent weeks in the Sacramento area, where they were disguised to look like Norco pain medication. Some of the victims were patients who sought painkillers on the street because they couldn’t obtain them legally.
Fake oxycodone, Percocet and Xanax pills have also been appearing in Florida, where they are blamed for at least one death.
19-year old Sergio Linyuntang Mendoza Bohon of Tijuana, Mexico was arrested at the Otay Mesa port of entry on February 10. Border patrol agents became suspicious when they saw “an unnatural looking bulge” in his underwear.
A search turned up 1,183 tablets labeled as oxycodone and 5.4 grams of powdered fentanyl. Laboratory tests later determined the pills were made with fentanyl, not oxycodone.
“This investigation involves the first interdiction of counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl that were smuggled from Mexico into the U.S. at the local ports of entry,” said Dave Shaw, special agent in charge for Homeland Security in San Diego.
“While this time we’ve successfully prevented a potentially deadly drug from reaching the streets, we face an uphill battle stemming from the rapidly growing demand for pharmaceutical painkillers on the black market.”
Last year, the DEA issued a nationwide public health alert for acetyl fentanyl, a synthetic opioid produced by illegal drug labs in China and Mexico. Acetyl fentanyl is virtually identical to fentanyl, a Schedule II controlled substance that is often used in patches to treat more severe forms of chronic pain.
Acetyl fentanyl has been blamed for thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. and Canada. It typically is mixed with heroin and cocaine to make the drugs more potent, but is now showing up in pill form – sometimes disguised as pain medication.
“These criminals are putting fentanyl into fake pills and passing them off as legitimate prescription medications. Fentanyl is extremely powerful and can very easily lead to overdose deaths,” said William Sherman, DEA Special Agent in Charge.
“Unsuspecting individuals who illegally purchase oxycodone could potentially die from the ingestion of what turns out to be fentanyl tablets,” said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. “We are very concerned that these counterfeit pills could cause serious harm to users. Even miniscule amounts of fentanyl can have devastating consequences for those who abuse it or literally even touch it.”
Bohon faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of unlawfully importing a controlled substance. His next court appearance is scheduled for May 2.
Public Health Emergency in Canada
British Columbia this week became the first province in Canada to declare a public health emergency due to a spike in fentanyl overdoses. Health officials say 201 overdose deaths were recorded in the first three months of 2016.
Counterfeit fentanyl pills disguised as oxycodone started appearing in Canada about two years ago, where they are often called “greenies” when sold on the street.
“When it's mixed into these tablets it's highly variable from one to the next. So an individual who uses a pill they bought off the street that contains fentanyl may crush up a tablet, inject it and be fine but with the next one they do they may overdose.” Dr. Matthew Young, a substance abuse epidemiologist in Ottowa, told Vancouver Metro.
Like the United States, Canada has a serious problem with opioid abuse and addiction. Young says efforts to reduce opioid prescribing may have contributed to the current wave of fentanyl overdoses.
“That also created a market where organized crime stepped in and started selling these counterfeit tablets containing fentanyl,” he said.