Fentanyl Overdoses Spike in Seattle

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Public health officials in the Seattle area are warning about a spike in fentanyl-related overdoses that have killed at least 141 people in King County since June. As in other parts of the country, many of the deaths involve counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with illicit fentanyl.

Three of the recent overdose victims in King County are high school students who took blue counterfeit pills stamped with an “M” and a “30” – distinctive markings for 30mg oxycodone tablets that are known on the street as “Mexican Oxy” or “M30.”

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“Teenagers who are not heroin users are overdosing and dying,” said Brad Finegood of Public Health – Seattle & King County. “Do not consume any pill that you do not directly receive from a pharmacy or your prescriber. Pills purchased online are not safe.”

Gabriel Lilienthal, a 17-year-old student at Ballard High School in Seattle, died Sept. 29 from a fentanyl overdose.

“Gabe died from a fake OxyContin called an M30,” the teen’s stepfather, Dr. Jedediah Kaufman, a surgeon, told The Seattle Times. “With fentanyl, it takes almost nothing to overdose. That’s really why fentanyl is a death drug.”

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is prescribed legally to treat severe pain, but in recent years illicit fentanyl has become a scourge on the black market, where it is often mixed with heroin and cocaine or used in the production of counterfeit pills. Illicit drug users often have no idea what they’re buying.

As PNN has reported, counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl are appearing across the country and have been linked to hundreds of deaths. Yet this emerging public health problem gets scant attention from federal health officials, who are currently focused on an outbreak of lung illnesses associated with vaping that has resulted in 18 deaths.

‘Enough to Kill San Diego’

In San Diego last month, DEA agents found five pounds of pure fentanyl in the apartment of Gregory Bodemer, a former chemistry professor who died of a fentanyl overdose. Prosecutors say that amount of fentanyl was “enough to kill the city of San Diego” or about 1.5 million people.

Also found in Bodemer’s apartment was carfentanil, an even more powerful derivative of fentanyl, along with a pill press, powders, liquids and dyes used in the manufacture of counterfeit medication.  

Bodemer’s body was found in his apartment Sept. 27. Rose Griffin, a woman who also overdosed at the apartment and recovered, has been charged with drug possession and distribution.

Bodemer was an adjunct chemistry professor at Cuyamaca College in 2016. He had previously worked as a chemistry instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Overdoses Linked to Fake Pain Pills Draw Little Attention

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.”

Even the White House has gotten involved in the vaping crisis, with President Trump calling for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes. “People are dying with vaping,” Trump said.

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.

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“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.”  

Mexican Oxy

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.  

Counterfeit Pill Lab Exposed in BBC Report  

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Counterfeit prescription drugs have emerged as a worldwide problem – from fake “Mexican Oxy” sold in United States to bogus cancer drugs recently found in Turkey, Argentina and Switzerland.

This week a chilling BBC documentary took viewers inside a dingy underground lab in the UK where counterfeit Xanax pills are made – often laced with illicit fentanyl and other dangerous chemicals.

One dealer bragged to BBC reporter Livvy Haydock that he could make 42,000 Xanax pills in three hours.

"I import the raw ingredients and chemicals needed and then I press the tablets with a tablet press machine,” he said.

"I've been doing this for many years and I've never been at the point where I can produce and supply enough to meet the demand for my product. I'm always turning away customers.”

BBC ‘INSIDE BRITAIN’S BLACK MARKET”

BBC ‘INSIDE BRITAIN’S BLACK MARKET”

The fake anti-anxiety pills are manufactured in a converted cement mixer and tested on volunteer “guinea pigs” before being sold on the street, often to teenagers.

"They're taking that risk, they're paying the money. I'll make it and I'll do it as best as I can and I'll give a good service and provide a good product and the rest is on them," the dealer said.

He boasted that overworked customs officials send him warning letters when his shipments are seized, but they rarely tell police.

"I've had plenty of packages stopped from customs to addresses. A lot of the time you just receive a letter saying it's been seized,” he explained. “"They don't really follow it up. Sometimes they do, but the majority of the time they don't.”

A similar problem exists in the United States, where the Postal Service processes and delivers nearly half of the world’s mail. Postal inspectors can’t even open suspicious packages without a search warrant.

“Drug traffickers have familiarized themselves with and exploited vulnerabilities in the Postal Service network,” a recent Inspector General report warned. “Individuals can now order nearly any type of illicit drug online and have it delivered to a location of their choosing, all from the comfort of their own home.

“These illicit purchases often rely on mail shipment companies, including the Postal Service, to deliver products to customers as they provide greater opportunities for anonymity than other delivery options, such as human couriers.”

The Inspector General recommended that Congress pass legislation to give postal inspectors legal authorization to open and inspect domestic packages suspected of carrying illicit drugs.

According to the World Health Organization, the counterfeit drug market is worth $200 billion worldwide, with almost half of the fake and low-quality medicines sold in Africa. Up to 300,000 people may die from pneumonia and malaria every year due to substandard medications primarily made in China, India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom.

‘Mexican Oxy’ Flooding U.S. Black Market

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

New York City police and DEA agents have announced the seizure of 20,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills made with illicit fentanyl. The pills, which have an estimated street value of $600,000, are blue in color and stamped “M” on one side and “30” on the other, making them virtually indistinguishable from prescription oxycodone.

The fentanyl pills are believed to have originated in Mexico. Known on the street as “Mexican Oxy,” the highly potent counterfeit pills are often cheaper and easier to obtain than pharmaceutical-grade oxycodone. Black market 30 mg oxycodone pills sell on the street for $9 to $30 each and are surfacing around the country.

“If you take prescription pills that did not come directly from a pharmacy, you are risking your life,” said New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan. “Throughout New York City, we have seen a spate of cases involving tens of thousands of potentially lethal fentanyl pills masquerading as oxycodone.

“Just because black market pills have the same color and design as legitimate pills, it does not mean they are safe. The ingredients and potency are all unknown, and minuscule amounts of fentanyl can cause overdose or death. Consuming a counterfeit pill is akin to playing Russian Roulette.”

Overdose deaths in New York City are at record-high levels and fentanyl is involved in over half of them. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. A customer accustomed to taking oxycodone would not necessarily have the tolerance to ingest illicit fentanyl without suffering an overdose.

DEA PHOTO

DEA PHOTO

Fentanyl powder is typically produced by illicit labs in China and then smuggled into the U.S. through Mexico. The powder is transformed into tablets by pill presses purchased online and then sold by drug traffickers. Four arrests in New York were made in connection with the latest seizure.

“These arrests highlight a growing trend in illicit street drugs which increases the risk of drug overdose,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan. “Traffickers are mass producing pseudo-pharmaceutical pills made of heroin, fentanyl and other illicit drugs in makeshift laboratories throughout New York City. These pills attract users because they are more convenient and less conspicuous; but users should beware because they are unregulated and lethal.”

Fentanyl Seizures at Mexican Border

Mexican Oxy is also blamed for a rash of overdoses in Arizona, where fentanyl deaths have tripled in recent years.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen in 30 years, this toll that it’s taken on families,” Doug Coleman, DEA Special Agent in Charge of Arizona told the Associated Press. “The crack (cocaine) crisis was not as bad.”  

Last month, the U.S. Border Patrol announced its biggest fentanyl seizure ever — over 250 pounds were found in a truckload of cucumbers at a border crossing in Nogales, Arizona.

Most of the fentanyl was in powder form and over two pounds were made up of pills. Together, they had the potential to kill millions of people.  

Just because black market pills have the same color and design as legitimate pills, it does not mean they are safe.
— Bridget Brennan, NYC Narcotics Prosecutor

Most of the fentanyl seized by law enforcement is found hidden inside vehicles at official border crossings around Nogales and San Diego, according to the AP. Smaller shipments of fentanyl are sent directly to the U.S. from China through the mail. The Postal Service’s Inspector General recently reported that over 90 percent of illegal online pharmacies use the mail to ship illicit drugs.

The Postal Service is prohibited from opening packages without a search warrant and is obligated to accept inbound international mail. This makes it more difficult for postal inspectors to identify and track packages suspected of containing illicit drugs. By comparison, private carriers are able to open and inspect packages and can track shipments from beginning to end.

The Inspector General recommended that Congress pass legislation that would give postal inspectors authorization to open and inspect domestic packages suspected of carrying illicit drugs.

FDA Warns Drug Distributor

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has sent a warning letter to a wholesale drug distributor rebuking the company for its handling of several tampering cases involving oxycodone and other medications.

The letter to the CEO of the McKesson Corporation involves incidents in 2016 when pharmacies notified the company about the tampering and theft of medications it had supplied them with.    

In one such case, a Rite Aid pharmacy in Michigan found that the seal to a bottle labeled as containing 100 tablets of oxycodone had been broken. Inside the bottle a pharmacist found 15 tablets of Aleve, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain reliever.  Two other Rite Aid pharmacies also reported to the company that oxycodone bottles had been tampered with. McKesson investigated the reports and determined the tampering and thefts likely occurred while the bottles were in its possession.  

Similar tampering incidents involved drugs used to treat bipolar disorder, high blood pressure and HIV.

According to the FDA, McKesson did little to identify and quarantine other products in its distribution system that also may have been tampered with and failed to warn other pharmacies that illegitimate products were in the supply chain.

"This is simply unacceptable. A distributor’s failure to have systems in place to investigate and quarantine suspect and illegitimate products within their control is a violation of the law," said FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, in a statement.

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"But this is even more concerning given that we’re in the midst of a widespread opioid crisis. Opioids that leave the legitimate supply chain could end up being sold illegally, or a patient who was appropriately prescribed these drugs to treat pain may not get the treatment they need or may unknowingly take a medication that’s not meant for them."

The FDA did not say why it waited so long to send the warning letter or notify the public about the 2016 tampering incidents. McKesson is the first company to receive a warning letter under the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA), which was enacted by Congress in 2013.

McKesson is one of the largest wholesale drug distributors in the country. It is being sued by dozens of states, cities and counties for its role in the opioid crisis. In 2017, McKesson was fined $150 million for failing to report suspicious orders for oxycodone, hydrocodone and other controlled substances. In 2008, the company agreed to pay $13.25 million in penalties for similar violations.

Counterfeit Pill Problem ‘Getting Worse by the Day’

By Pat Anson, Editor

Counterfeit painkillers and fake medications made with illicit fentanyl have killed Americans in at least 22 states, according to a new report by the Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM) a coalition of pharmacy and healthcare organizations. Counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl have now been found from coast to coast in 43 states.

“This updated report shows that the illegally-imported fentanyl problem is getting worse by the day,” said Dr. Marvin Shepherd, chairman of the PSM Board.

Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine. It is prescribed legally for severe pain, but illicit fentanyl has become a scourge on the black market, where it is typically mixed with heroin or cocaine. Rogue manufacturers also press it into counterfeit prescription pills such as Vicodin, Percocet and Xanax.

Unsuspecting buyers – including pain sufferers looking for relief -- often have no idea what they’re getting.

According to a recent CDC report, drug deaths involving fentanyl (19,413) surpassed overdoses linked to prescription opioids (17,087) in 2016.

COUNTERFEIT PERCOCET

COUNTERFEIT PERCOCET

“The annual count of overdose deaths from prescription opioids has remained constant since 2011, but deaths from fentanyl poisoning have spiked since then. As fentanyl-laced pills mimicking legitimate medication have flooded the illicit drugs supply, prescription drug users have been poisoned by the counterfeits,” the PSM report found. 

“The tally of deaths because of counterfeit pills made with fentanyl is probably undercounted because lab protocols lagged behind this shift and weren’t testing for fentanyl.”

The pills are difficult to trace, as Minnesota prosecutors admitted last week when they announced that no criminal charges would be filed in the accidental overdose death of Prince. The music icon died two years ago after taking counterfeit painkillers that were “an exact imitation” of Vicodin.

“Prince thought he was taking Vicodin and not fentanyl,” said Carver County Attorney Mark Metz, adding that dozens of counterfeit pills were found in Prince’s home, many of them stored in aspirin bottles.

Investigators were unable to determine how or where Prince obtained the fake pills, but they are readily available online for anyone who cares to look. According to one report, there are as many as 35,000 online pharmacies operating worldwide. Many do not require a prescription and are selling counterfeit medications. Their customers include some pain patients who are no longer able to obtain opioids legally from doctors and are looking for other sources.

‘Criminals Are Pretty Smart’

“They’re looking, maybe innocuously, for medicine online. They’re searching for ‘fentanyl online’ or ‘Percocet buy.’  Not because they want to buy medicine on the Internet, but rather they just want to find medicine,” says Libby Baney, Executive Director of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, an industry supported non-profit.

“The criminals are pretty smart. They know that there’s a market out there and they know they can offer these medicines to patients for good reasons, bad reasons or otherwise that are looking for those medicines. And they are going to get duped because they are very likely buying from a website that is selling it illegally.”

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy recently evaluated 100 websites selling medications and found that almost all were operating illegally and selling drugs without a prescription. Over half (54%) were selling controlled substances and 40% were offering drugs that are frequently counterfeited with fentanyl.

The marketing and selling of counterfeit medicine goes beyond just online pharmacies. Drug dealers are increasingly using Facebook, Twitter and message boards to reach customers. PNN recently received this sales pitch from one dealer:

"We have pharmaceutical drugs for your health illness especially for Chronic Pain, Anxiety, Depression, Panic Disorder. ADHD, Xanax Bars, Narcolepsy pills, Antidepressants, Antipsychotics, Benzodiazepines, Narcotics, Opiates, weight loss/fat burner. We do overnight secure shipping."

Warning unsuspecting buyers about the easy availability of these drugs poses a dilemma for law enforcement and policy makers.

“We have ethical tension around all of this. On the one hand, we certainly don’t want to be educating people that you can buy controlled substances or prescription drugs on the Internet without a prescription, counterfeit or otherwise. That’s just dangerous. But we also don’t want to be in a position of not warning them or not making a policy response to the fact that this currently exists,” Baney told PNN.

It is relatively easy to tell the difference between a legitimate online pharmacy and an illegal one. The URL’s for websites that end with “.Pharmacy” (not .com or .net) are certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and are in compliance with laws and practice standards. You can also visit buysaferx.pharmacy to verify whether a website is legitimate.

Business Booming for Illegal Online Pharmacies

By Pat Anson, Editor

One of the many unintended consequences of efforts to reduce opioid prescribing is that they may be fueling the growth of illegal online pharmacies.

According to one estimate, as many as 35,000 online pharmacies are in operation worldwide. Over 90 percent are not in compliance with federal and state laws, many do not require a prescription, and about half are selling counterfeit painkillers and other fake medications. About 20 illegal online pharmacies are launched every day.

“There is no sign that this is slowing down,” says Libby Baney, Executive Director of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP), an industry supported non-profit.

“You have people (losing) their access to healthcare, not just pain care, but just general care. You have the opioid epidemic. You have the well-intended policy responses to that. All of this has the potential, unintended consequence of sending people to the Internet.

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“My biggest fear is that if you limit prescriptions to five days or seven days, or prevent access to medication altogether, and people search.”

Since 2015, counterfeit painkillers and other medications made with illicit fentanyl have killed Americans in at least 16 states, according to a recent report that found the highly dangerous pills have spread from coast to coast.

"A lot of these people are buying it on the street or the Internet," Dr. Karen Gunson, Oregon’s medical examiner, told The Oregonian. "They think they're buying oxycodone or Xanax pills but they don't know what they're getting.''

What pain medications can you buy online? Oxycodone, hydrocodone, Percocet, Vicodin, tramadol and other painkillers can easily be found online, along with other controlled substances that are becoming harder for patients to obtain legally.

“There are thousands of websites that have figured it out and people are using them,” says Baney. “Most of these sites are based offshore. They may be using some U.S. servers, U.S. bank accounts or U.S. domain registrars, but nearly all are offshore. And that creates law enforcement hurdles.”

Last month the Food and Drug Administration announced a crackdown on over 500 online pharmacies that were accused of selling illegal and potentially dangerous medications. Warning letters were sent on September 19, giving the website operators 10 days to stop selling unapproved or misbranded prescription drugs.

Twenty days later, most of them are still online selling the same medications.

In a chat today with “Peter” at one of the websites that received a warning letter, I was told that I could purchase 80mg tablets of oxycodone without a prescription. Another website offered to ship us medications “placed inside baby doll as gift to ensure customer privacy and safe delivery.”

Baney says many of the illegal online pharmacies act as marketing agents for foreign drug suppliers.

“You don’t even need to have your own drug supply,” she said. “All you have to do is join an affiliate network and basically become a third-party marketer for an existing drug network.

“They give you the website template. They have the bank account setup. All you need to do is put up the site and process orders, and you get a cut and they get a cut, and they ship the drugs. It’s a pretty slick deal.”

Baney says it’s relatively easy to tell the difference between a legitimate online pharmacy and an illegal one. The URL’s for websites that end with “.Pharmacy” (not .com or .net) are certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and are in compliance with laws and practice standards.

You can also visit buysaferx.pharmacy to verify whether a website is legitimate.

The ease and convenience of ordering medications online – as well as the demand and profitability -- haven't gone unnoticed. According to CNBC, Amazon in the next few weeks will decide whether to enter the $560 billion prescription drug market with an online pharmacy of its own.