By Pat Anson, Editor
In the wake of nine deaths and dozens of overdoses in the Sacramento, California area in recent weeks, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has issued a public safety alert about illicit fentanyl being disguised as opioid pain medication and sold on the black market.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and can be lethal in very small doses. Fentanyl is available by prescription to treat more severe types of chronic pain, but illicitly manufactured fentanyl is fast becoming a scourge across the U.S. and is blamed for thousands of fatal overdoses.
White fentanyl powder is usually mixed with heroin or cocaine to give those drugs an extra kick, but in Sacramento the drug was disguised as counterfeit Norco pills, a legal opioid pain medication that combines hydrocodone with acetaminophen.
“Public Health and Law Enforcement officials believe that the pills containing Fentanyl were likely sold on the street under the guise of being legitimate hydrocodone. Additionally, the pills are marked to mimic the authentic hydrocodone product. However, the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services reports that test results show that some of the tested pills did not contain hydrocodone, but rather fentanyl,” the DEA said in a statement.
“The DEA urges the public not to take a prescription drug unless prescribed by your own physician and obtained from a reputable pharmacy."
One of the overdose victims in California was David Alfaro, a 53-year old man who suffered chronic pain from a leg injury, according to a report by KCRA-TV.
"He bought what he thought was Norco, and it ended up being fentanyl -- and it killed him," said Marinda Conway, Alfaro’s common law wife. "He wasn't a heroin addict that was looking to substitute his addiction by buying street pills. He wasn't an opioid addict by any means.”
Conway said a single fake Norco pill was enough to kill Alfaro, although autopsy results are pending.
"This has been my fear with the new CDC guidelines that more people with pain will have less access to prescription medications; therefore taking matters into their own hands, self-medicating with medications bought on the street," said Paul Gileno, president of U.S. Pain Foundation, referring to recently adopted government guidelines that discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.
"The CDC never thought about the unintended consequences from limiting access to legitimate patients needing care whose clinicians now feel unable to prescribe or treat appropriately. My worst nightmare is the possible repercussions looming in the future due to these hindering guidelines," Gileno said.
In a survey last fall of over 2,000 pain patients by Pain News Network, 70 percent predicted that use of heroin and other illegal drugs would increase if the CDC guidelines were adopted.
The DEA says illicit fentanyl is primarily manufactured in Mexico and China before being smuggled into the U.S. Because of the nature of the drug, it’s impossible to tell if fentanyl was prescribed legally and used for medical reasons or manufactured illegally and used recreationally. The CDC admits many fentanyl overdoses may have been misclassified as deaths caused by prescription painkillers.