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.”



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.

Counterfeit Pain Meds Found in Prince’s Home

By Pat Anson, Editor

Counterfeit pain medication laced with fentanyl was found in the home of the late pop star Prince, a source with knowledge of the investigation into the his death has told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Prince was found dead in his Paisley Park home on April 21 and speculation immediately focused on a possible opioid overdose. A medical examiner later reported that Prince died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl, but did not say where the drug came from.

Prince did not have a prescription for fentanyl, which is used in skin patches and lozenges to treat chronic pain. He died less than a week after his private plane made an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois, where paramedics reportedly treated him for an opioid overdose.

Recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported the U.S. was being “inundated” with hundreds of thousands of fake pills made with illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Dozens of deaths have been blamed on the fake pills.

The Star Tribune’s source said Prince weighed only 112 pounds at the time of his death and had so much fentanyl in his system that it would have killed anyone.

Despite the finding, investigators still aren’t sure how the 57-year-old musician ingested the fentanyl. However, they are leaning toward the theory that he took fake pills disguised as hydrocodone, not knowing they contained fentanyl, according to the Star Tribune.

If so, that would make Prince the most high-profile victim of the fast growing fentanyl crisis. Several states in the Northeast and Midwest have recently reported that most of their fatal overdoses are now caused by illicit fentanyl, not opioid pain medication.

A source told the Associated Press that several pills found in Prince’s home were labeled as “Watson 385” – a stamp used to identify generic pills containing hydrocodone and acetaminophen sold under the brand name Lortab. When one of those pills was tested, it was found to contain fentanyl and lidocaine.

The Star Tribune reported that Prince was found in his home wearing a black shirt and pants — both were on backward — and his socks were inside-out. Prince appeared to have been dead for several hours before his body was found in an elevator.

In addition to fentanyl, sources told the newspaper that lidocaine, Percocet and alprazolam were found in Prince’s system. Alprazolam is the generic name for Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. Counterfeit versions of Xanax made with fentanyl have also been blamed on several deaths.

“The counterfeit pills often closely resemble the authentic medications they were designed to mimic, and the presence of fentanyls is only detected upon laboratory analysis,” the DEA warned in an unclassified report last month.

“Fentanyls will continue to appear in counterfeit opioid medications and will likely appear in a variety of non-opiate drugs as traffickers seek to expand the market in search of higher profits. Overdoses and deaths from counterfeit drugs containing fentanyls will increase as users continue to inaccurately dose themselves with imitation medications.”

Two public health researchers recently speculated that a “malicious actor” may be intentionally poisoning people with counterfeit medication made with fentanyl. However, a DEA spokesman said that was unlikely.

“If you’re a drug trafficker, you don’t want to poison people. You want a regular customer base,” Rusty Payne said.

Is ‘Malicious Actor’ Behind Fentanyl Overdoses?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The U.S. medical community is starting to pay more attention to the “burgeoning public health threat” posed by counterfeit prescription drugs made with illicit fentanyl.

And for the first time, public health researchers are suggesting that a “malicious actor” could be poisoning people intentionally with fake pills.

“The steep recent increase in overdose deaths and near-deaths nationwide involving fentanyl signals a new chapter in the epidemic of opioid use. Throughout the United States and Canada, seizures of pill presses, large quantities of active pharmaceutical ingredient in powder form, and counterfeit pills have been reported,” wrote Traci Green, PhD, Boston University School of Medicine, and Michael Gilbert, MPH, Epidemico Inc., in a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“These highly potent pills could have been created by a malicious actor to intentionally poison consumers or attract the attention of law enforcement to redistributors.”

Green and Gilbert offered no evidence to support their theory, but said it was one of several "plausible hypotheses."

“I’m not going to really comment on speculation, because we deal in fact,” said DEA spokesman Rust Payne. “If you’re a drug trafficker, you don’t want to poison people. You want a regular customer base.”

Green and Gilbert were commenting on a case study also published in JAMA Internal Medicine that looked at 8 patients in the San Francisco area who were hospitalized late last year after ingesting fake alprazolam (Xanax) tablets that were later found to contain fentanyl. One victim was a baby boy just eight months old. All of the patients eventually recovered.

A few months later, 12 people died and dozens more were hospitalized in the Sacramento area after overdosing on fake Norco pills that were also made with fentanyl.

“This case series represents a burgeoning public health threat. Clinicians should be aware of the potential for further outbreaks and serious toxic effects associated with counterfeit prescription medications,” wrote lead author Ann Arens, MD, California Poison Control Center.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is prescribed legally in patches and lozenges to treat chronic pain, but illicitly manufactured fentanyl is fast becoming a scourge around the country. Since the fall of 2013, illicit fentanyl is blamed for over 5,000 deaths and the number of overdoses appears to be accelerating.

Illicit fentanyl was typically mixed with heroin to boost its potency but is now appearing in pill form, often disguised to look like pain medication such as Norco and oxycodone.

As Pain News Network has reported, the DEA recently issued a report saying the U.S. faced an unprecedented “fentanyl crisis” that was likely to grow worse. The agency blamed heavy consumer demand and the “enormous profit potential” of counterfeit medication.

But Green and Gilbert believe there could be a more sinister motive behind the overdoses, the “malicious actor” who wants to poison people.

“This hypothesis cannot be entirely ruled out by the evidence presented by Arens et al, but it is less likely because the quantity of fentanyl identified in the counterfeit alprazolam tablets was significantly greater than would be required to harm unwitting consumers,” they wrote.

The dangerous potency of the pills could also be accidental or the result of an inexperienced pill manufacturer, the two researchers said. 

That is the more likely scenario, according to the DEA’s Payne, who says the pill press operations seized so far have been amateurish.

“If you’re just cutting fentanyl in a tablet in a lab somewhere, in someone’s garage or warehouse, you may be putting way too much fentanyl into a pill than anybody can withstand. And so that is what is going on right now,” Payne told PNN.

Regardless of the motive, Green and Gilbert called for an aggressive expansion in public health surveillance programs to detect new trends in drug use.

“New surveillance approaches and rapid expansion of evidence-based interventions are the missing parameters needed to shift the curve of the epidemic of opioid use,” they said.

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.

Californians Busted for Selling Fake Painkillers

By Pat Anson, Editor

Three people have been arrested in San Francisco in what appears to be a widening investigation into sales of counterfeit pain medication.

Federal prosecutors say 39-year old Kia Zolfaghari and his wife, Candelaria Dagandan Vazquez, ran an illegal fentanyl pill manufacturing operation out of their San Francisco apartment. The pills were disguised to look like oxycodone.

The couple, along with King Edward Harris II of Oxnard, were arrested Friday in an undercover sting operation.

The complaint alleges that Zolfaghari sold over 1,500 fentanyl-laced pills, over the course of six transactions, to a confidential source working with law enforcement.  The complaint further alleges that Harris, 34, of Oxnard, brokered these narcotics sales in a series of recorded calls with the confidential source and hand-delivered two of those purchases to the confidential source,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement. 

“Zolfaghari also sold the fentanyl-laced pills to customers through an online marketplace.  The complaint alleges that Zolfaghari’s wife, Vazquez, 38, of San Francisco, conspired with him to carry out his drug trafficking operation, and delivered packages of pills for mailing, purchased packaging supplies, and accepted payments for narcotics via her bank account.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and can be lethal in very small doses.

It is prescribed legally to treat severe pain, but is also being manufactured illegally and sold on the street.

Fentanyl pills disguised to look like painkillers such as oxycodone and Norco are increasingly being found in the U.S. and Canada. Fake pain pills are blamed for at least 14 deaths in California and 9 in Florida.  Some pills were purchased off the street by pain patients who were unable to get prescription medication through a doctor.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island recently reported an “alarming” rise in fentanyl overdoses. Over half the opioid overdose deaths in those states are now blamed on illicit fentanyl, not prescription pain medication.

A Minnesota medical examiner this month also blamed fentanyl for the accidental overdose of pop icon Prince. It’s not known if the fentanyl involved in Prince’s death was prescribed legally or obtained through other sources..

A Canadian couple were charged Friday with running an illegal fentanyl pill operation in British Columbia. Leslie John McCulloch and Rebekka Rae White were arrested in March after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided a warehouse in West Kelowna, B.C. and found pill producing equipment. The couple is currently out on bail.

Fentanyl is blamed for over 170 overdose deaths in B.C. alone so far this year.

The fentanyl scourge has become so serious that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has released a training video warning law enforcement officers that they could die just by handling a small amount of the drug.

The video features two New Jersey police officers who inhaled powdered fentanyl while collecting the drug as evidence during a raid. “I thought that was it. I thought I was dying. It felt like my body was shutting down,” said one detective.

In the video, acting DEA Deputy Administrator Jack Riley warns officers to avoid testing suspect fentanyl on the scene and to even keep their police dogs away from the drug because it is just too dangerous.To watch the video, click here.

Counterfeit Pain Pills Spread in California

By Pat Anson, Editor

At least seven people in the San Francisco Bay Area sought medical help after ingesting counterfeit pain medication laced with fentanyl, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The cases were reported in Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.

The fake pills were disguised to look like Norco, a widely prescribed opioid pain medication that combines hydrocodone with acetaminophen.

The pills are similar to counterfeit medication blamed in recent weeks for 14 fatal overdoses in the Sacramento area, except that they contain promethazine, an antihistamine that acts as a sedative and is sometimes used to boost the “high” from illicit opioids.

At least one of the fake tablets was also found to contain cocaine.

california poison control system

california poison control system

The CDC said all of the Bay Area patients had symptoms of opioid intoxication, but recovered within 24 hours. The pills were obtained from friends or bought off the street.  The outbreak lasted about two weeks, from March 25 to April 5, but was not publicly reported until today. There was no explanation for the three week delay in reporting what the CDC considers a "serious public health threat."

“The distribution of counterfeit medications, especially those containing fentanyl, is an emerging and serious public health threat,” the CDC said. “Efforts to identify the source of the current counterfeiting are ongoing. Patients with signs and symptoms of acute opioid overdose including central nervous system and respiratory depression, and in whom larger doses of naloxone are required to reverse symptoms, should raise suspicion for intoxication with a counterfeit product containing fentanyl.”

The CDC calls opioid abuse “the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States” and has often blamed that trend on prescription pain medication. However, as Pain News Network has reported, prescriptions for most opioids have actually been in decline for several years, especially for hydrocodone, at a time when opioid overdose deaths are rising.

Illicit fentanyl is a dangerous and sometime deadly opioid that is 50 times more potent than morphine. It has been blamed for thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. and Canada. Last year, the DEA issued a nationwide public health alert for acetyl fentanyl, a synthetic opioid produced by illegal drug labs in China and Mexico. Acetyl fentanyl is virtually identical to prescription fentanyl, a Schedule II controlled substance that is often used in patches to treat more severe forms of chronic pain.

Acetyl fentanyl typically is mixed with heroin and cocaine to make the drugs more potent, but is increasingly showing up in pill form – usually disguised as pain medication.

In February, a smuggler was caught with nearly 1,200 fake oxycodone pills at the California-Mexico border, the first time counterfeit pain medication made with fentanyl was seized at a border crossing in California.

In March, the DEA arrested four men in southern California who were operating four large pill presses to make counterfeit hydrocodone and Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. At least two people died in Orange county late last year after ingesting fake Xanax made with fentanyl. Counterfeit medication has also recently been reported in Florida and Ohio.

Last month the CDC adopted guidelines that discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Several pain patients have told PNN recently that their doctors are now reducing their opioid doses or cutting them off entirely.

“Since the guidelines changed, my quality of life has been destroyed & relentless suffering has become my identity,” wrote a pain patient who said she lost access to the opioid medication she’s been using for pain relief for a dozen years.

“I never considered using drugs for anything other than what & how they were prescribed. I can't say the thought of seeking relief from constant suffering hasn't flirted with the possibility of something a little less legal, or regulated. The fact that I've considered something so obscene makes me sick, but the fact that my healthcare providers were forced to allow me to suffer & reach such a point of desperation is disgusting.”

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.