Hydrocodone Rescheduling Fueled Online Drug Sales

By Pat Anson, Editor

Hydrocodone was once the most widely prescribed and one of the most abused drugs in the United States. Over 135 million prescriptions were filled in 2012 for hydrocodone combination products such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco.

Then in 2014 the Drug Enforcement Administration rescheduled the opioid painkiller from a Schedule III controlled substance to the more restrictive category of Schedule II. The move was intended to reduce the prescribing of hydrocodone – and it quickly had the desired effect.  By 2017, only 81 million prescriptions for hydrocodone were filled.  

But while legal prescriptions for hydrocodone have gone down, the DEA’s 2014 rescheduling may have fueled a surge in illegal online sales of hydrocodone and other opioids, according to a new study in the British Medical Journal.    

“The scheduling change in hydrocodone combination products coincided with a statistically significant, sustained increase in illicit trading of opioids through online US cryptomarkets. These changes were not observed for other drug groups or in other countries,” wrote lead author Jack Cunliffe, PhD, a lecturer in data analysis and criminology at the University of Kent.

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Cunliffe and his colleagues studied these online cryptomarkets – also known as the “dark web” – by using web crawling software that scans the internet looking for websites dedicated to online sales of illicit drugs. From October 2013 to July 2016, they found that sales of prescription opioids on the dark web nearly doubled, from 6.7% to 13.7% of all online drug sales.  

“Our results are consistent with the possibility that the schedule change might have directly contributed to the changes we observed in the supply of illicit opioids,” said Cunliffe. “One explanation is that cryptomarket vendors perceived an increase in demand and responded by placing more listings for prescription opioids and thereby increasing supply.”

‘Iron Law of Prohibition’

The increase in supply and demand wasn’t just for hydrocodone. The researchers also noted a growing number of online listings for more potent opioids, such as oxycodone and fentanyl. They attribute that to the “iron law of prohibition” – banning or reducing the supply of one drug encourages users to seek more potent drugs from new sources.

“We found that users were first buying oxycodone followed by fentanyl. Drug users adapt to their changing environment and are able to source drugs from new distribution channels if needed, even if that means by illegal means. In a context of high demand, supply side interventions are therefore likely to push opioid users towards illicit supplies, which may increase the harms associated with their drug use and make monitoring more difficult,” Cunliffe wrote.

As PNN has reported, business is booming for illegal online pharmacies. As many as 35,000 are in operation worldwide and about 20 new ones are launched every day. About half are selling counterfeit painkillers and other medications. Overdoses involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids – most of them purchased on the black market – have also increased and now outnumber those linked to prescription opioids.

"The study’s findings are troubling but not surprising. As you’ve well reported, there are often unexpected and negative externalities resulting from well-intended anti-addiction interventions," Libby Baney, Principal, Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting and senior advisor to Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies said in an email to PNN. 

"What’s worse still, when buying medicine online - whether from dark or surface web sellers - it is virtually impossible for the consumer to know if the product is what it claims (in this case, an opioid like oxycodone) or is a dangerous counterfeit laced with a deadly dose of elephant tranquilizer or poison. As too many victims have shown, even one pill can kill."

A recent study at the University of Texas Medical Branch also found an association between hydrocodone's rescheduling and increased opioid abuse.  Researchers found that hydrocodone prescriptions for Medicare patients declined after rescheduling, but opioid-related hospitalizations increased significantly for elderly patients who did not have a prescription for opioids.

Fake Norco Nearly Killed California Woman

By Pat Anson, Editor

An article published online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine shows just how easy it is for someone to be fooled – and nearly killed – by counterfeit pain medication.

It tells the story of an unnamed 41-year old California woman who treats her chronic back pain with regular doses of Norco, a prescription medication that combines acetaminophen and hydrocodone.

She was one of dozens of people who died or were hospitalized in northern California after ingesting counterfeit Norco bought on the street that was laced with illicit fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 stronger than morphine.

"Street Norco is almost indistinguishable from brand-name Norco in appearance but can be lethal," said lead author Patil Armenian, MD, of the University of California San Francisco-Fresno.

"This new street drug's toxicity led to an unexpected cluster of fentanyl deaths in California this spring. These deaths in our area combined with an emergency patient who was concerned about pill appearance and exceedingly sleepy after her usual dose of medication led to our investigation."

The woman in question suffers chronic pain from a herniated disc and normally buys the Norco illicitly, 2 to 3 tablets at a time. The article does not explain why she buys them off the street.

The woman felt sleepy and became unconscious within 30 minutes of taking three of the counterfeit tablets. She next remembered waking up in a hospital emergency room. She told hospital staff the pills had the markings of Norco, but were beige in color instead of the usual white.

A blood serum analysis revealed the woman had significant amounts of fentanyl and U-47700, another type of synthetic opioid. Neither drug is an ingredient in brand-name Norco.

“Toxic effects of these compounds are similar to those of other opioids, namely, miosis, respiratory depression, coma, and possible death. To our knowledge, this is the first reported opioid toxidrome case with confirmed serum concentration of U-47700,” said Armenian, adding that the woman was discharged from the hospital and has completely recovered.

“This case highlights that fentanyl-laced Norco is spreading to other regions and may contain psychoactive ingredients other than fentanyl, such as U-47700, prompting emergency providers to remain vigilant in their care.”

As Pain News Network has reported, the Drug Enforcement Administration is warning the U.S. faces an unprecedented “fentanyl crisis” that is growing worse as drug dealers ramp up production of counterfeit medication. Dozens of Americans have died this year after ingesting counterfeit versions of oxycodone, Norco and Xanax that are virtually indistinguishable from the real medications. Even a few milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal.

Fentanyl is legally prescribed in patches and lozenges to treat severe chronic pain, but the DEA said “hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescription drugs” laced with illicit fentanyl are on the black market. The agency predicts more fake pills will be manufactured because of heavy demand and the “enormous profit potential” of fake medication.

Canada’s Fentanyl Crisis

Canada – which has been dealing with its own fentanyl crisis – may provide a preview of what’s in store for the U.S. Overdose deaths from fentanyl have reached such an urgent level that British Columbia Premier Christy Clark asked the federal government last week to restrict access to pill presses and to start screening “all small packages” entering the province for fentanyl. 

Earlier this year British Columbia declared a public health emergency and adopted new opioid prescribing guidelines that are even more stringent than those released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

While the CDC’s guidelines are voluntary and intended only for primary care physicians, British Columbia’s guidelines are legally enforceable for all opioid prescribers because they set a “minimum standard of professional behaviour and ethical conduct.” The guidelines state that opioids should not be prescribed to treat headaches, fibromyalgia and low back pain.

In Ontario, the backlash against opioids has reached a point that palliative care doctors are worried they will no longer be able to give high doses to their patients – many of whom are dying from cancer and other chronic illnesses. Ontario’s Ministry of Health said public health plans next year would stop paying for high doses of hydromorphone, morphine and fentanyl patches.

“Our patients under palliative care deserve better than this,” Stephen Singh, MD, director of the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians, told The Globe and Mail, adding that he was “appalled” by the government’s decision.

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.

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.