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.

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.

Drugs Sign.jpg

“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.

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.