Counterfeit Pain Pills Spread in California

By Pat Anson, Editor

At least seven people in the San Francisco Bay Area sought medical help after ingesting counterfeit pain medication laced with fentanyl, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The cases were reported in Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.

The fake pills were disguised to look like Norco, a widely prescribed opioid pain medication that combines hydrocodone with acetaminophen.

The pills are similar to counterfeit medication blamed in recent weeks for 14 fatal overdoses in the Sacramento area, except that they contain promethazine, an antihistamine that acts as a sedative and is sometimes used to boost the “high” from illicit opioids.

At least one of the fake tablets was also found to contain cocaine.

california poison control system

california poison control system

The CDC said all of the Bay Area patients had symptoms of opioid intoxication, but recovered within 24 hours. The pills were obtained from friends or bought off the street.  The outbreak lasted about two weeks, from March 25 to April 5, but was not publicly reported until today. There was no explanation for the three week delay in reporting what the CDC considers a "serious public health threat."

“The distribution of counterfeit medications, especially those containing fentanyl, is an emerging and serious public health threat,” the CDC said. “Efforts to identify the source of the current counterfeiting are ongoing. Patients with signs and symptoms of acute opioid overdose including central nervous system and respiratory depression, and in whom larger doses of naloxone are required to reverse symptoms, should raise suspicion for intoxication with a counterfeit product containing fentanyl.”

The CDC calls opioid abuse “the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States” and has often blamed that trend on prescription pain medication. However, as Pain News Network has reported, prescriptions for most opioids have actually been in decline for several years, especially for hydrocodone, at a time when opioid overdose deaths are rising.

Illicit fentanyl is a dangerous and sometime deadly opioid that is 50 times more potent than morphine. It has been blamed for thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. and Canada. 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 prescription fentanyl, a Schedule II controlled substance that is often used in patches to treat more severe forms of chronic pain.

Acetyl fentanyl typically is mixed with heroin and cocaine to make the drugs more potent, but is increasingly showing up in pill form – usually disguised as pain medication.

In February, a smuggler was caught with nearly 1,200 fake oxycodone pills at the California-Mexico border, the first time counterfeit pain medication made with fentanyl was seized at a border crossing in California.

In March, the DEA arrested four men in southern California who were operating four large pill presses to make counterfeit hydrocodone and Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. At least two people died in Orange county late last year after ingesting fake Xanax made with fentanyl. Counterfeit medication has also recently been reported in Florida and Ohio.

Last month the CDC adopted guidelines that discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Several pain patients have told PNN recently that their doctors are now reducing their opioid doses or cutting them off entirely.

“Since the guidelines changed, my quality of life has been destroyed & relentless suffering has become my identity,” wrote a pain patient who said she lost access to the opioid medication she’s been using for pain relief for a dozen years.

“I never considered using drugs for anything other than what & how they were prescribed. I can't say the thought of seeking relief from constant suffering hasn't flirted with the possibility of something a little less legal, or regulated. The fact that I've considered something so obscene makes me sick, but the fact that my healthcare providers were forced to allow me to suffer & reach such a point of desperation is disgusting.”

In a survey of over 2,000 pain patients last fall by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation, 60 percent predicted patients would get opioids off the street or through other sources if the CDC guidelines were adopted. Another 70% said use of heroin and illegal drugs would increase.