Opioid Hysteria Leading to Patient Abandonment

By Pat Anson, Editor

As the overdose crisis has worsened, doctors are under increasing pressure from law enforcement, regulators and insurers to reduce or stop prescribing opioids.

A nurse practitioner in the Seattle area – who asked to remain anonymous -- recently told us that she was closing her pain clinic because she was afraid of losing her license and going to prison. 


“This whole thing is making me literally sick to my stomach. I've cried a million tears for my patients already, and I'm just beginning,” she wrote.

“I will be carefully weaning them all down… or arranging transfer of care to anywhere the patient would like. What a joke that is. There is no one else prescribing effective doses of opioids for chronic pain patients.  If I am to be thrown in prison, it should be for that -- not for keeping them on therapy that enriches their lives."

Patient abandonment is a growing problem in the pain community. Patients safely prescribed opioids for years are being dropped by doctors – often without weaning or tapering -- after they fail a drug test, miss a pill count, or become disruptive during an appointment. Sometimes they’re dropped for no reason at all.

Such is the case of Chris Armstrong, a 50-year old Orlando, Florida man severely disabled by multiple sclerosis and trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic pain facial disorder sometimes called the “suicide disease.” For over six years, Armstrong’s pain was treated with relatively high doses of morphine and hydrocodone at Prospira’s National Pain Institute in Winter Park.

That came to abrupt ending in late December, when Armstrong’s 74-year old mother and caretaker was handed a brief letter during their last visit to the clinic.

"This letter is to inform you that I will no longer be your physician and will stop providing medical care to you,” wrote Cherian Sajan, MD. “I will continue to provide routine emergency and medical care to you over the next 30 days while you seek another physician.”  

No explanation was given for Armstrong’s dismissal. Dr. Sajan did not respond to a request for comment.

“To have the plug pulled just like that,“ says Chris. “There’s nothing in my record that I’ve ever done anything wrong. I was a model patient.”

“They discharged him and gave no reason,” Valerie Armstrong said.  “They gave us a name of another pain doctor which they scribbled on a piece of torn paper. We went to see him, but after a few visits, (that doctor) told my son he was discharging him as well, as he needs ‘long term care’ which they refuse to provide.”

At the National Pain Institute, Armstrong says he was prescribed 150 morphine equivalent units (MME) of opioid medication daily. The second doctor reduced that dose to 100 MME – still above the maximum dose of 90 MME recommended by the CDC.  

Chris has been unable to find a new doctor and believes he’s been red flagged as a patient who needs high doses of opioids. 

“I went to another one and he said he can’t do anything because his hands are tied because I’ve been ousted by another pain doctor,” he told PNN. “What am I going to do, if no one will see me because of that?”



“I have called every pain clinic in my area and no one will see my son because he has been discharged by the previous pain clinics,” says Valerie. “My son is bed-bound quadriplegic, only travels in a wheelchair and can barely talk or eat from trigeminal neuralgia pain. His health is extremely fragile, and he will surely die if he has to stop his pain medication abruptly. That happened once before and he went to the ER in an ambulance having seizures.”

Armstrong has only a few days left of his last prescriptions.

“We need help and we need it now. He only has a few days supply of his pills left and then I'm sure his body will give out from withdrawals,” says Valerie. “My son had never taken any kind of pain medication before going to the National Pain Institute six and a half years ago and now he is physically dependent on them. I have begged and pleaded with them to take him back and even called their corporate headquarters to no avail.”

There is often little recourse for patients like Chris Armstrong.  Malpractice and patient abandonment laws vary from state to state, but discharging a patient is generally considered legal, as long as it isn’t discriminatory.

Florida’s Board of Medicine says a “health care practitioner can terminate a patient relationship at any time, but the practitioner may not abandon a patient” and should provide “continuity of care” until a patient can find a new doctor. To fulfill that requirement, the Florida Medical Association recommends that patients be given adequate notice in writing, be provided with medical care for at least 30 days, and be offered assistance in locating another practitioner – which Armstrong’s previous doctors did.

“There not a lot of strength in the law here,” says Diane Hoffman, a professor of health law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. “That makes it very challenging for chronic pain patients. And for physicians, they are trying to find the right place to be. Physicians are very risk averse in terms of the law.”

If patients have a complaint about a doctor, Hoffman says they should contact their state medical board or their state’s consumer protection office.

If you have an experience with patient abandonment that you’d be willing to share, Hoffmann is collecting patient experiences on the issue. You can send your story to her at:  patientstories@law.umaryland.edu

Florida’s Deadliest Rx Drug is Not a Painkiller

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report from Florida’s Medical Examiners Commission is debunking a popular myth about the overdose crisis.

The most deadly prescription drugs in the state are not opioid painkillers, but benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazepam).  Xanax alone killed more Floridians last year (813) than oxycodone (723).

The medical examiners analyzed toxicology and autopsy results for 11,910 people who died in Florida in 2016, noting not only what drugs were present at the time of death, but which drug actually caused the deaths.

The distinction is important and more accurate than the death certificate (ICD) codes often used by the CDC, which merely list the drugs that were present. Critics have long contended that CDC researchers cherry pick ICD data to inflate the number of deaths "involving" or "linked" to opioid medication, in some cases counting the same death twice.   


Florida made an effort to get the numbers right.

“Florida’s medical examiners were asked to distinguish between the drugs determined to be the cause of death and those drugs that were present in the body at the time of death. A drug is indicated as the cause of death only when, after examining all evidence, the autopsy, and toxicology results, the medical examiner determines the drug played a causal role in the death,” the report explains.  “A decedent often is found to have multiple drugs listed as present; these are drug occurrences and are not equivalent to deaths.”

The five drugs found most frequently in Florida overdoses were alcohol, benzodiazepines, cocaine, cannabinoids and morphine. The medical examiners noted that heroin rapidly metabolizes into morphine, which probably led to a substantial over-reporting of morphine-related deaths, as well as a significant under-reporting of heroin-related deaths.

Benzodiazepines also played a prominent role as the cause of death, finishing second behind cocaine as the drug most likely to kill someone.  Benzodiazepines were responsible for almost twice as many deaths in Florida in 2016 than oxycodone. Like opioids, benzodiazepines can slow respiration and cause someone to stop breathing if they take too many pills.


Source: Florida Medical Examiners Commission

As in other states, deaths caused by cocaine, heroin and illicit fentanyl have soared in Florida in recent years. In just one year, the number of overdose deaths there jumped 22 percent from 2015 to 2016.

"We don't talk about it much now there's the opioid crisis, but cocaine and alcohol are still a huge issue, there are still a lot of deaths due to those things," Florida addiction treatment director Dustin Perry told the Pensacola News Journal.

Florida is not an outlier. Several other states are also using toxicology reports to improve their analysis of drugs involved in overdose deaths and getting similar findings.  In Massachusetts, deaths linked to illicit fentanyl, benzodiazepines, heroin and cocaine vastly outnumber deaths involving opioid medication.  Prescription opioids were present in only 16 percent of the overdose deaths in Massachusetts during the second quarter of 2017.



Although it is becoming clear that many different types of drugs -- opioids and non-opioids -- are fueling the nation’s overdose crisis, politicians, the media and public health officials still insist on calling it an “opioid epidemic” or an “opioid crisis” -- diverting attention and resources away from other drugs that are just as dangerous when abused.  We never hear about a Xanax epidemic or a Valium crisis.

President Trump's opioid commission recognized the need to improve drug overdose data when it released its final report this month.

"The Commission recommends the Federal Government work with the states to develop and implement standardized rigorous drug testing procedures, forensic methods, and use of appropriate toxicology instrumentation in the investigation of drug-related deaths. We do not have sufficiently accurate and systematic data from medical examiners around the country to determine overdose deaths, both in their cause and the actual number of deaths,” the commission found.

Will New Laws Punish Pain Patients?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Recent efforts by state and federal lawmakers aimed at punishing drug traffickers could wind up sending people to prison simply for seeking pain relief, according to critics.

This week the American Kratom Association (AKA) sent an action alert to members warning that a bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Dianne Feinstein could be a “backdoor way” of banning kratom -- an herbal supplement that millions of people use as an alternative to opioid painkillers.

The “Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017” – also known as the SITSA Act – would give the Attorney General the power to list as a “Schedule A” substance any unregulated drug that has a chemical structure similar to that of a drug already listed as a controlled substance. A similar measure has been introduced in the House.

The bills are ostensibly aimed at banning chemical cousins or “analogues” of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid blamed for thousands of overdose deaths that is increasingly appearing on the black market.

But kratom supporters fear the SITSA Act could also be used to ban kratom, something the Drug Enforcement Administration tried unsuccessfully to do last year, claiming it was an "opioid substance" with “a high potential for abuse.” Kratom is not an opioid, but it has opioid-like properties that reduce pain or act as a stimulant or depressant – much like a controlled substance.

“So now the anti-kratom bureaucrats in Washington want to ban kratom simply by claiming it has the same effects as an opioid – calling it an ‘analogue’ of the opioid,” said Susan Ash, the AKA’s founder and spokesperson. “After everything that we’ve fought successfully against and endured together as a movement, our lobbyists are concerned that this is now the perfect storm for banning kratom.”

Ash wants the SITSA Act to be amended to exclude natural botanicals like kratom. In its current form, she says the bill could impose prison sentences of up to 20 years for importers or exporters of kratom, which is made from the leaves of a tree that grows in southeast Asia.

Florida Law Stiffens Penalties for Fentanyl

A new law in Florida is also intended to crackdown on fentanyl dealers, but critics say it could wind up sending unsuspecting pain patients to prison as well.

Signed into law yesterday by Gov. Rick Scott, it requires mandatory minimum sentences for defendants convicted of selling, purchasing or possessing illicit fentanyl.

Anyone caught with as little as four grams of fentanyl would face a minimum of three years in prison. Sentences escalate depending on the amount of fentanyl seized and murder charges could be filed if someone dies of a fentanyl overdose.

Dealers often mix fentanyl with heroin or sell it in counterfeit pills disguised to look like oxycodone or other prescription painkillers. Many users have no idea they’re buying fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

"There's a massive problem with counterfeit pills," Greg Newburn, state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums told the Miami New Times. "You have people who think they’re buying oxy pills who will end up getting labeled as traffickers in fentanyl.”



Florida has been down this path before. According to an investigative series by Reason.com, mandatory minimum sentences in Florida for oxycodone and hydrocodone trafficking resulted in 2,300 people being sent to prison, most of them low-level drug users or patients who went to the black market seeking pain relief. 

“The signing of this bill by Gov. Scott is another example of using get tough drug policies for political gain,” said Tony Papa, Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. “This is not going to stop the sale of heroin in Florida. It's another prosecutorial tool that will be used for bargaining by district attorneys in drug cases.  Under this new law many individuals will be subject to the death penalty for a 10 dollar bag of dope. It's totally insane!”

Wisconsin to Involuntarily Commit “Drug Dependents”

A bill that recently sailed through the Wisconsin legislature with little opposition would allow for the involuntary commitment of someone who is drug dependent. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman John Nygren, has a daughter who has struggled with heroin addiction and served time in jail.

Current Wisconsin law allows for the involuntary commitment of alcoholics if three adults sign a petition alleging that a person lacks self-control over their use of alcohol and whose health is substantially impaired. 

The new bill adds “drug dependence” to the list of reasons someone can by committed. Dependence is defined as a person’s use of one or more drugs that is beyond their ability to control and that substantially impairs their health or social functioning.

The bill is one of nearly a dozen anti-opioid measures sponsored by Nygren that Gov. Scott Walker asked to be approved in a special legislative session. It now heads to his office for consideration.

Patients Could Be Jailed in Florida Drug Crackdown

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Florida legislature is close to passing a bill that would require mandatory minimum sentences for anyone convicted of selling, purchasing or possessing illicit fentanyl.

Critics say the legislation could result in pain patients being sent to jail when they unwittingly buy counterfeit painkillers on the black market that are made with fentanyl.

House Bill 477 was approved unanimously by the Florida House this week.  Similar legislation is under consideration in the Senate. Both bills would put fentanyl, carfentanil, and their chemical cousins in the same drug class as heroin.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 more potent than morphine.  It is available legally by prescription to treat severe pain, but illicitly manufactured fentanyl has become a scourge across the U.S. and Canada, where it is usually mixed with heroin or used to make counterfeit drugs.

As currently written, the House bill requires anyone convicted of having as little as 4 grams of fentanyl to get a mandatory three year prison term; 14 grams would carry a 15-year sentence; and 28 grams would result in 25 years behind bars.

Judges would have zero discretion to alter the sentences. If the drugs result in someone dying, suspects would face a charge of first degree murder.

While the legislation is primarily aimed at cracking down on dealers, critics say patients desperate for pain relief could also face prison if they buy counterfeit oxycodone and other painkillers laced with fentanyl.

"There's a massive problem with counterfeit pills," Greg Newburn, state policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums told the Miami New Times.

"You have people who think they’re buying oxy pills who will end up getting labeled as traffickers in fentanyl. A handful of pills could get you three years. If you buy just 44 pills, you could end up with 25 years in prison."

Newburn was surprised the Florida legislature didn’t learn its lesson from previous efforts to require lengthy prison terms for oxycodone and hydrocodone traffickers. Rigid enforcement of the law led to 2,300 people being sent to prison, including some patients who were simply look for pain relief, according to Reason.com.

"When you look back on how the last mandatory-minimum heroin law was applied, you see that it targeted not just just traffickers but a lot of low-level offenders, people who were never supposed to be targeted by the bill in the first place," said Newburn. "We had a heroin mandatory-minimum law for 18 years. Lawmakers promised us it would deter drug use, but now we’re in the midst of the worst heroin crisis we’ve ever seen. And the answer to that is to pass another mandatory minimum?"

Florida was one the first states where counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl began to appear. In early 2016, nine people died in Florida’s Pinellas County after ingesting counterfeit Xanax, an anxiety medication.

“Hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescriptions pills, some containing deadly amounts of fentanyl, have been introduced into U.S. drug markets, exacerbating the fentanyl and opioid crisis,” the DEA warned in a report last year. “Motivated by enormous profit potential, traffickers are exploiting high consumer demand for prescription medications by producing inexpensive, fraudulent prescription pills containing fentanyl.”

As opioid prescriptions have become harder to obtain, some pain patients are turning to the black market for relief. In a recent survey of over 3,100 patients by PNN and the International Pain Foundation, 11 percent said they had obtained opioids illegally on the black market in the year after the CDC’s opioid guidelines were released.    

‘Confusing’ Email Warns of Drug Shortages in Florida

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Florida Department of Health is apologizing for a “confusing” email sent Friday that warned of possible prescription drug shortages in the state due to the recent suspension of a wholesale drug distributor.

Earlier this week, the McKesson Corporation agreed to pay a record $150 million fine for failing to track and report suspicious orders of opioid pain medication and other controlled substances.   As part of the settlement with the Drug Enforcement Administration, McKesson suspended sales of controlled substances from wholesale distribution centers in Colorado, Ohio, Michigan and Florida.

Late Friday morning, the Florida health department sent an email with the subject line “Emerging Health Threat” to pharmacists in the state warning of possible drug shortages.

“The DEA recently suspended McKesson Corporation’s sales of controlled substances from distribution in Florida. This suspension could impact your patients’ ability to fill their prescriptions and you may want to advise them about the potential implications. As a practitioner, you should be aware of the possibility of drug shortages and consider alternative treatment options when prescribing controlled substances.”

About six hours later, the health department sent out a second email, apologizing for the first one:

"A recent message that was sent out regarding the DEA’s suspension of McKesson Corporation’s sales of controlled substances from distribution in Florida was found to be confusing. This suspension will impact one distribution center in Florida and impacts only the handling of hydromorphone. The Florida Department of Health and Division of Medical Quality Assurance apologize for any confusion that may have resulted from that message.”

There was no explanation for why the first “confusing” email was sent or why there was such an abrupt change in tone in the second one. No press release was issued by the health department warning of possible drug shortages in Florida. 

A spokesperson for McKesson confirmed that the suspension of its Florida distribution center will only impact hydromorphone, an opioid medication sold under the brand names Dilaudid and Exalgo.

"We do not anticipate our pharmacy customers will experience any negative impacts as a result of the temporary suspension," wrote Kristin Hunter in an email to PNN.

"The Lakeland, FL distribution center will be suspended for one year from distributing hydromorphone ONLY (not ALL controlled substances). There will be no change to the distribution of non-controlled pharmaceutical and over-the-counter products. Customers that typically receive controlled substances from an affected distribution center are now being served by one of the other 28 DCs (distribution centers) in McKesson’s network with no interruption in service."

This is the second time McKesson has been accused of violating the Controlled Substances Act. In 2008, the company paid a $13.25 million fine after it failed to identify and report suspicious orders for opioid pain medication from independent and small pharmacies. 

As part of a settlement with the DEA, the company agreed to implement a system to detect such orders.

However, the DEA says McKesson “did not fully implement or adhere to its own program” and continued to supply pharmacies with “an increasing amount of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills, frequently misused products that are part of the current opioid epidemic.”

From 2008 to 2013, the company processed over 1.6 million orders for controlled substances in Colorado, but reported only 16 of them as suspicious, according to the DEA.

A pharmacist told WFTX-TV in Naples that suspending distribution centers and potentially disrupting the supply of opioids isn’t helpful because it only makes it harder for chronic pain patients to get their medications.

 "It's a terrible way of policing, essentially what they're going to try do is, rather than go in and physically shut down what they call 'pill mill physicians' or 'dirty doctors' they cut the supply," said Fort Myers pharmacist T. J. Depaola, who says some patients unable to get medication turn to the black market for pain relief.

"You have patients that were being treated for chronic pain; all of a sudden they couldn't get meds, they went to heroin because that's the closest thing to what they were on before."

Finding pain relief in Florida is already difficult. Because of the state’s crackdown on pill mills, many doctors are now unwilling to prescribe opioids and patients report pharmacies are often reluctant to fill legitimate prescriptions.  

A pharmacist who asked to remain anonymous told Pain News Network that many Florida pharmacies already operate under a strict quota system, in which they are allotted a certain number of painkillers per month. He predicted McKesson’s suspension will have a snowball effect, driving patients from one pharmacy to another in search of a dwindling supply of opioids.

“With the DEA restriction on McKesson hydromorphone supplied pharmacies, and with a shift of patient population to pharmacies using alternative suppliers, the latter pharmacies will now exceed the (quota) sooner and exhaust the supplies sooner. It is crazy,” he said.

Further tightening the supply are plans by the DEA to reduce the amount of almost every Schedule II opioid pain medication manufactured in the U.S. by 25 percent or more in 2017. The quota for hydrocodone, which is sold under brand names like Vicodin, Lortab and Lorcet, is being reduced by a third. The DEA said it was cutting the opioid supply to prevent diversion and because of declining demand for painkillers.

New Efforts to Ban Kratom in Florida and New York

By Pat Anson, Editor

Federal efforts to ban kratom may be on the back burner – for now --- but that isn’t stopping lawmakers in Florida and New York from introducing bills that would make the sale of kratom illegal in those states.

Millions of Americans use the herbal supplement to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, addiction and chronic pain.

Florida State Rep. Kristin Jacobs (D) has reintroduced legislation that would add mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine – the two active ingredients in kratom – to the state’s list of controlled substances.  Selling, manufacturing or importing kratom in Florida would be a criminal misdemeanor if the bill becomes law.

Similar legislation has been reintroduced in New York by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (D), which would make the sale and distribution of kratom punishable with a fine of $2,000. After a third offense, retailers caught selling kratom would also lose their licenses to sell lottery tickets, alcohol and tobacco – a far bigger financial penalty.

A request for an interview with Gunther went unanswered.

“This would be the nail in the kratom coffin for New York wouldn't it?” said Fred Kaeser, the former Director of Health for New York City’s public schools.

Kaeser started using kratom a few months ago and found that it relieved his chronic back pain and reduced his need of opioid pain medication.

“So I find something that helps me to minimize my opioid consumption for my severe chronic pain, and this bill will now force me to reconsider resuming that opioid consumption. Truly amazing isn't it? Let's ban the very substance that helps you to limit your opioid intake,” said Kaeser in an email.

“Why ban something that has very limited empirical research behind it? Yet what research that does exist on kratom suggests promise as a real alternative to opioids. Why not advocate for more research to determine the true risk-benefit of this plant rather than a bill that shuts down that potential promise altogether?”

Kratom or its active ingredients are already illegal in six states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin), and came close to being banned nationwide last year.

The Drug Enforcement Administration announced plans in August for the emergency scheduling of kratom as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, the same classification given to heroin, LSD and marijuana. The DEA called kratom “an imminent hazard to public safety” and cited anecdotal reports that the herb was linked to several deaths.  

The emergency scheduling was withdrawn after an unprecedented lobbying campaign by kratom users, retailers and some members of Congress.  Over 23,000 comments were made on a federal website – the vast majority of them supporting the continued classification of kratom as a dietary supplement. The DEA said it would reevaluate its decision and ask the Food and Drug Administration to conduct a full scientific and medical review of kratom.  

Three previous attempts to ban the herb in Florida have failed, but Rep. Jacobs is not giving up. She calls kratom a “scourge on society” and said the American Kratom Association was spreading lies about the herb’s medical value.

“They have a story,” Jacobs told the Florida Politics blog. “Just like Hitler believed if you tell a lie over and over again, it becomes the truth.

“The Kratom Association stands to lose a lot of money if they aren’t able to continue profiting off the misery of addicts.”

In 2015, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released a report stating that “no pervasive health issues” have been attributed to kratom and the herb “does not constitute a significant risk to the safety or welfare of Florida residents.”

A survey of over 6,400 kratom users by Pain News Network and the American Kratom Assocation found that 98 percent did not consider kratom a harmful or dangerous substance. Three out of four also said they did not get "high" from using kratom.

Fentanyl ‘Death Pills’ Spreading Coast-to-Coast

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"

fake fentanyl pills disguised as norco

fake fentanyl pills disguised as norco

"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.