By Pat Anson, Editor
Law enforcement officials are warning that counterfeit pain and anxiety medications laced with illicit fentanyl have started appearing in Florida, where they are blamed for at least one overdose death.
The pills in Florida are disguised to look like oxycodone, Percocet or Xanax, but are actually made with fentanyl, a powerful and dangerous drug 50 times more potent than morphine. Similar counterfeit pills, made to look like Norco hydrocodone medication, are blamed for at least ten deaths and dozens of overdoses in the Sacramento, California area in recent weeks.
“I've had one of these so called super Norco’s,” said David, a 25-year old father of two, who started using street drugs for back pain. “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.”
As Pain News Network has reported, some of the victims in California are pain patients like David who sought opioid medication on the street because they can no longer get it prescribed legally.
"The people who have overdosed are not typically drug addicts," Olivia Kasirye of the Sacramento County health department told Agency France-Presse. “Many of the individuals said at one time or another they had a prescription and either they didn't get it refilled or the doctor said they didn't need it anymore."
Florida "Death Pills"
"It is here, it is deadly and it will continue to grow in our community,” said Danny Banks of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in the Orlando Sentinel.
“If you are dependent upon or if you are experimenting with prescription painkillers, please make sure you are getting those painkillers from a licensed pharmacy. I cannot assure you right now, if you are buying prescription painkillers from either the black market or on the street, I cannot assure that they will not be laced with a deadly concoction that contains fentanyl. And it will kill you.”
In many cases, Banks said, neither buyers or sellers know the so-called “death pills” contain fentanyl. He said fentanyl-laced pain pills have been seized in Osceola and Brevard counties, and have been linked to at least one fatality.
Florida’s Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has attributed nine recent fentanyl deaths to a batch of fake Xanax, an anxiety medication.
DEA Sees No Link to CDC Guidelines
In recent years, Illicit fentanyl has been blamed for thousands of overdose deaths. It is usually produced in China and then imported by Mexican drug cartels, which often mix fentanyl with heroin or cocaine before smuggling it into the U.S. The recent appearance of fentanyl in counterfeit pills is an ominous sign that drug dealers could now be targeting patients as customers, not just addicts.
But a DEA spokesman in Washington, DC disputes that notion.
“I don’t think you’re seeing that at all,” says the DEA’s Rusty Payne. “They’re going after anybody who will buy the product. By and large they are reaching hard-core addicts.”
Payne also sees no connection between the fake fentanyl pills and the recent adoption of the CDC’s opioid guidelines, which discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Many patients fear losing access to opioids because of the guidelines.
“These CDC guidelines are brand spanking new. I think it’s hard to draw any sort of conclusions from that,” Payne told PNN. “I don’t think the Mexican cartels are paying one lick of attention to what the CDC guidelines are. What they see are thousands and thousands of addicts that they can push a product on, whether it be heroin or now fentanyl. And introducing it in pill form is just another way to make a lot of money."
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.
According to a story in STAT, drug cartels are now shipping machinery into the U.S. that can manufacture pills, allowing dealers to mass produce fentanyl in pill form. In March, the DEA arrested four men in southern California who were operating four large presses to make counterfeit hydrocodone and Xanax pills.
Recently the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested 14 people in British Columbia, seizing firearms, diamonds, cash and about a thousand fentanyl pills.