By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
A mysterious lung illness linked to marijuana vaping has drawn nationwide attention this week. The CDC said there were 6 confirmed deaths and 380 cases of the illness, which one doctor warned was “becoming an epidemic.”
Meanwhile, an even more deadly health crisis continues to spread, drawing relatively little attention from the nation’s media and federal officials. Counterfeit blue pills made with illicit fentanyl are killing Americans from coast to coast.
This week, health officials in California’s Santa Clara County announced that 9 fatal overdoses have been linked to counterfeit oxycodone pills since January, including the recent deaths of a 15 and 16-year old.
Local law enforcement has seized a large number of the blue tablets, which have an “M” stamped on one side and a “30” on the other side. They are virtually indistinguishable from real oxycodone.
“The extent of circulation of these fake pills is unknown; however, they had been consumed by several of the people who died,” Santa Clara Public Health Director Sara Cody, MD, said in a statement.
“Many opioid pills, which are made to look like real prescription medications, are now made by counterfeiting organizations. These pills are not prescribed, stolen, or resold by or from verified pharmaceutical companies, and there is no connection between their appearance and their ingredients. Many patients may not be aware of the risks of taking a pill that does not come directly from a pharmacy.”
The overdoses in Santa Clara County are not an isolated situation. Over 700 miles away, the Yakima County Coroner’s Office in Washington State warned that three recent deaths involved fake oxycodone pills with the same distinctive markings. Yakima is used as a major distribution center by Mexican drug cartels.
"Most of the time it comes from Mexico, but we haven't been able to pinpoint exactly which batch it's from and who is actually dealing it," said Casey Schilperoort, a spokesperson for the Yakima County Sheriff's Office.
Known on the street as “Mexican Oxy,” the pills were also found at the scene of four fatal overdoses near San Diego over the summer. Ports of entry near San Diego are major transit points for counterfeit oxycodone smuggled in from Mexico. The pills are usually transported in vehicles, often by legal U.S. residents acting as couriers. They sell on the street for $9 to $30 each and have spread across the country.
In February, New York City police announced the seizure of 20,000 fake oxycodone pills. Overdose deaths in New York City are at record levels and fentanyl is involved in over half of them. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
This week federal prosecutors in Cleveland indicted ten people for trafficking in fake oxycodone and other illegal drugs. The leader of the drug ring, Jose Lozano-Leon, allegedly directed operations using a cell phone smuggled into his Ohio prison cell.
Prosecutors say Lozano spoke frequently with the co-defendants and others to arrange drug shipments from Mexico to northeast Ohio. The ring allegedly specialized in counterfeit oxycodone.
"In Ohio and other parts of the country, we are seeing an increase in these blue pills that at first glance appear to be legitimately produced oxycodone, but in fact are laced with fentanyl,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Keith Martin.
Ironically, the indictments were filed in the same federal courthouse where a major lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors is expected to get underway next month.