A Brush with Death and Fake Pain Pills

By Pat Anson, Editor

At least ten deaths and 42 overdoses have now been blamed on counterfeit pain pills in the Sacramento, California area.

The pills are disguised as Norco – the brand name of a common hydrocodone medication – but they are actually made with illicit fentanyl, a dangerous and sometimes deadly drug that is 50 times more potent than morphine.      

One of those fatal overdoses could have easily been a 25-year year old father of two, who we’ll call “David” to protect his identity.

“I've had one of these so called super Norcos,” says David.  “It had the markings of a regular prescription, M367. I only took a half just in case because of the news from the day and luckily I did. It was unlike any high I've had. It made me dizzy.  I couldn't see straight or sleep.”

It’s not just street addicts who are being victimized by the fentanyl scam. Many are pain patients like David who turned to the black market for relief when they could no longer get opioid prescriptions legally.

David suffered a herniated disc several years ago. He was prescribed morphine for his pain and took it three times a day for six months before being abruptly cut off by his doctor. 

counterfeit norco pills

counterfeit norco pills

I tried everything to get more and more prescription drugs prescribed. After that I had no choice but to turn to the street. It's a huge problem here in Sacramento,” David told Pain News Network.

“Ever since middle school and high school I recall the widespread use of opiates and heroin. But now there is such a high demand for the pills because of the increased regulations on them and not being able to scam an early refill. It has caused the price to spike on the streets and as soon as the word gets out someone has them they are immediately sold for ridiculous prices. It’s not all addicts and not all pain patients. The doctors around here are cutting people down on the amount they are prescribed, causing them to have nowhere else to turn but the neighborhood dealer.”

After three years of buying street drugs, David knew he had a problem and entered a treatment program, where he was prescribed Suboxone, an opioid medication that’s widely used to treat addiction. The treatment worked well for several months, but then his health insurance with Covered California lapsed and he missed a re-enrollment period. David could no longer get treatment.

“The withdrawal from that (Suboxone) was about 3 weeks and felt like it was getting worse, so I really felt as if I had no choice but to ease the pain by once again turning to the streets to feel better. I told myself I'd only do it for a month then that turned into two months, now it's going on seven and I can't stop,” said David. “I got the Norco from a friend who is usually prescribed oxycodone but had run out and he too was forced to go out and find something to get him through till his refill was due.”

David bought 16 Norco pills for $5 each, not knowing he was actually getting fentanyl.

“Adding fentanyl of course to the Norco makes it much more powerful and deadly at the same time,” says John Burke, a former drug investigator for the Cincinnati Police Department who is now president of the International Health Facility Diversion Association. “Dealers brag about the potency of their products, and even brag when someone overdoses or even dies as proof of superior product. Screwed up thought process, but nevertheless that’s the world of illicit drug dealing.”

Burke says the counterfeit Norco most likely came from Mexico, where drug cartels manufacture fentanyl before smuggling it into the United States. Usually the fentanyl is mixed with heroin or cocaine to boost their potency. By disguising fentanyl as a legitimate pain medication, the dealers are tapping into a large and growing black market for opioids sought by addicts and pain patients.

“Putting fentanyl in pill form makes it less of a problem in hiding and transporting the drugs,” says Burke. “These pills probably bring more money, especially when the testimonials roll in as to how potent they are. Their drive is their bottom line.”

The bottom line for David is that he nearly overdosed and could have died. For the sake of his children, he’s gotten rid of the remaining Norco pills and is hoping to wean himself off opioids.

“I'm starting to taper myself down. I have to, this pill scare is enough to scare someone that has a lot to lose like myself,” he said.