1 in 4 Counterfeit Pills Have Lethal Dose of Fentanyl

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Illicit drug users who buy prescription pills online or off the street are playing a dangerous game of Russian Roulette, according to a new laboratory analysis by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The DEA found that about one of every four counterfeit pills (27%) have a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine.

Counterfeit pills laced with illicit fentanyl are appearing across the country and have been linked to thousands of deaths. Many of the overdoses involve blue pills stamped with an “M” and a “30” – distinctive markings for 30mg fake oxycodone tablets known on the street as “Mexican Oxy” or “M30.”

Based on a sampling of 106 tablets seized nationwide between January and March 2019, the DEA found that 29 of the pills contained at least 2 mg of fentanyl, a potential lethal dose. At least one pill seized in California had 4.2 mg of fentanyl — more than twice a lethal amount.

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“Capitalizing on the opioid epidemic and prescription drug abuse in the United States, drug trafficking organizations are now sending counterfeit pills made with fentanyl in bulk to the United States for distribution,” said DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon. “Counterfeit pills that contain fentanyl and fentanyl-laced heroin are responsible for thousands of opioid-related deaths in the United States each year.”

The DEA laboratory analysis found fentanyl in 21% of the heroin samples tested. Fentanyl is often added to illicit drugs to boost their potency.

‘Enough to Kill Entire Population of Ohio’

In recent months, there have been outbreaks of fentanyl-related overdoses around the country. Law enforcement agencies are also seizing larger amounts of fentanyl from drug traffickers.

In September, DEA agents found a pill press and five pounds of pure fentanyl in a San Diego apartment. Prosecutors said that was “enough to kill the city of San Diego” or about 1.5 million people.

That seizure was overshadowed a few weeks later, when 45 pounds of suspected fentanyl were seized in Montgomery County, Ohio. A Homeland Security agent said that was "enough to kill the entire population of Ohio, many times over."  

Public health officials in Seattle recently warned about a spike in fentanyl-related overdoses that killed at least 141 people in King County, including several teenagers. Parents and students are being warned in public service announcements not to consume any pill not directly obtained from a pharmacy or prescriber.

Last week health officials in Virginia predicted the state would have a record number of drug overdoses in 2019. Most of the 1,550 projected overdoses involve illicit fentanyl.

As in other parts of the country, fentanyl related deaths have surged in Virginia, while overdoses involving prescription opioids have remained relatively flat for over a decade.

“In 2015 statewide, the number of illicit opioids deaths surpassed prescription opioid deaths. This trend continued at a greater magnitude in 2016, 2017, and 2018,” the Virginia Department of Health said in its latest quarterly report. “There has not been a significant increase or decrease in fatal prescription opioid overdoses.”

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.  

DEA Proposes More Cuts in Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

For the fourth consecutive year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is proposing steep cuts in the supply of hydrocodone, oxycodone and three other opioid painkillers classified as Schedule II controlled substances.

In a notice published today in the Federal Register, the DEA proposes to reduce production quotas for hydrocodone by 19 percent and oxycodone by 9 percent in 2020. The supply of hydromorphone, oxymorphone, and fentanyl would also be cut.

“The aggregate production quota set by DEA each calendar year ensures that patients have the medicines they need while also reducing excess production of controlled prescription drugs that can be diverted and misused,” acting DEA Administrator Uttam Dhillon said in a statement.

“DEA takes seriously its obligations to both protect the public from illicit drug trafficking and ensure adequate supplies to meet the legitimate needs of patients and researchers for these substances.”

In setting annual production quotas for controlled substances, DEA considers various factors such as medical need, estimates of retail consumption based on prescriptions, and forecasts from opioid manufacturers. Added to the mix this year is diversion.

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The five opioids being cut are subject to special scrutiny under the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act, known as the SUPPORT Act, which was signed into law by President Trump on October 24, 2018. The law requires DEA to estimate the amount of diversion of the five opioids and “make appropriate quota reductions.”

The agency estimated that 57 kilograms – about 125 pounds – of oxycodone were diverted or stolen in 2018, along with 24 kilograms (53 pounds) of hydrocodone. There was diversion of relatively small amounts of fentanyl, hydromorphone and oxymorphone last year.   

Cuts Began in 2016

The DEA first began cutting the supply of opioids in 2016 during the Obama administration and the trend has accelerated under President Trump, who pledged to reduce the supply of opioids by a third by 2021.

If approved, the 2020 production quotas would amount to a 60 percent decrease in the supply of hydrocodone since 2016 and a 48 percent cut in the supply of oxycodone.

While overdoses involving prescription opioids have been declining, they’ve been offset by a growing number of deaths attributed to illicit fentanyl, heroin and other street drugs. “Mexican Oxy” – counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl – are being trafficked throughout the United States and are blamed for overdoses from New York City to San Diego.

In addition to the five opioids, the DEA is setting production quotas on more than 250 Schedule I and II controlled substances. The agency is proposing to increase the amount of marijuana that can be produced for research by almost a third, from 2,450 kilograms in 2019 to 3,200 kilograms -- almost triple what it was in 2018. The increase reflects growing interest in marijuana research.

Public comments on the DEA proposal will be accepted until October 10. To make a comment online, click here. The agency will publish another notice later in the year on its final decision and begin informing drug manufacturers of their quota allotment.

Feds Warn of Counterfeit Oxycodone Deaths

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

In the wake of four fentanyl overdoses in southern California, federal authorities have issued a public safety alert warning drug users about a lethal strain of counterfeit medication designed to look like 30mg oxycodone tablets.

The blue bills have the letter “M” in a box on one side and the number “30” with a line down the center on the other. On the street they are referred to as blues, M-30s or Mexican Oxy.

The pills were found at the scene of four fatal overdoses in San Diego County last week. The deaths in Poway, Santee, Lakeside and Valley Center were all reported within 24 hours.

Although tests on the pills are ongoing, authorities suspect they are laced with illicit fentanyl or carfentanil, which can be fatal in tiny doses.

SAN DIEGO SHERIFF’S DEPT. IMAGE

SAN DIEGO SHERIFF’S DEPT. IMAGE

“That heroin, that meth, that coke, that oxy you think you are taking? Well, it just might have fentanyl in it, and it just might be the last thing you ever do,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said in a statement. “I cannot be more clear than this: Fentanyl may be the costliest drug you ever do, because you may pay with your life, and you won’t even know you took it.”

Brewer said border seizures, prosecutions and overdoses are on pace to hit all-time highs in San Diego County by the end of 2019. The Medical Examiner’s Office has confirmed 50 fentanyl-related overdose deaths so far this year, plus another 28 suspected but yet-to-be confirmed cases.

If the trend continues, the death toll could potentially reach 130, which would amount to a 47 percent increase over last year’s total of 90 deaths. The victims are overwhelmingly male, with the average age about 36.

“Just when we think it can’t get any worse, the latest numbers prove us wrong,” Brewer said.  “I am alarmed by the dramatic surge in trafficking activity and deaths, particularly of young people. San Diego is the fentanyl gateway to the rest of the country, and we are working hard to close that gate with interdiction, prosecution and education.”

Federal authorities have confiscated 1,175 pounds of illicit fentanyl – more than half a ton -- at or near the international border so far this year. In addition, there has been a record number of seizures involving counterfeit blue pills labeled M-30 that contain fentanyl. The pills sell on the street for $9 to $30 each and are appearing around the country.

Ports of entry near San Diego are major transit points for illicit fentanyl smuggled in from Mexico. The fentanyl is usually transported in vehicles, often by legal U.S. residents acting as couriers.

A recent report from the Wilson Center found that Mexican cartels are playing an increased role in the fentanyl trade.

San Diego is the fentanyl gateway to the rest of the country.
— U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer

“Chinese companies produce the vast majority of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and fentanyl precursors, but Mexico is becoming a major transit and production point for the drug and its analogues as well, and Mexican traffickers appear to be playing a role in its distribution in the United States,” the report found.

“Both large and small organizations appear to be taking advantage of the surge in popularity of the drug, which is increasingly laced into other substances such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana—very often without the end-user knowing it. To be sure, rising seizures of counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl illustrate that the market is maturing in other ways as well.”

Last week a former Mexican police officer was indicted for fentanyl trafficking by a federal grand jury in Texas. Assmir Contreras-Martinez, 30, was pulled over by a Texas trooper on Interstate 40 in Amarillo in May. About 73 pounds of illicit fentanyl powder was found inside his 2007 Ford Explorer, enough to kill 10 million people, according to DEA experts. 

Contreras-Martinez admitted he was paid $6,000 to transport the fentanyl from California to Florida and that it was his second such trip. Before his unlawful immigration to the United States nine months ago, Contreras-Martinez had been employed for eight years as a municipal police officer in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico.

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.

Memories, Medications and Hospital Horrors

By Tom Parker, Guest Columnist

Some things you never forget. Your mother’s love, your favorite teacher, your first home run (oh, that’s right, I’m 61 and that still hasn’t happened yet), your first date, your first kiss and your wedding.

Christmas to the Parker family is also memorable for many reasons. My delightful wife and I have always sought to make Christmas a precious time for our family. We listen to Christmas music off and on throughout the year, but nonstop in the fall and winter. Bing Crosby and Karen Carpenter mellifluously bless our home with the glorious sounds of Christmastime.

So why do I not remember a season of joy that just ended a month ago?

For several weeks, I had been experiencing pain and an inability to fully empty my bladder. I have quite a few health problems, so I just chalked this up as just another one and pretty much ignored it as it continued to get progressively worse.

My wife and son were on a long trip to take my youngest daughter back to college. I was home alone and finally felt the need to call my doctor about the urinary retention. My doctor’s sagacious nurse urged me to immediately go to the ER, so I called for an ambulance.

I was in St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany for almost a week while an interminable number of tests were conducted to determine what was wrong. I was not allowed any of my normal medications, pain or otherwise, or food or liquids while the initial tests were conducted. Nothing whatsoever passed my lips.

TOM PARKER

TOM PARKER

When my normal medication regimen finally resumed, I found out very quickly that I had to specifically request an oxycodone tablet when meds were dispensed or I wouldn’t get one.

Which leads me to very distinct memories of my roommate for the rest of my stay. A very brawny young man of 30 or so, a massively-muscled professional bodybuilder, was wheeled into the room and into the next bed. He was just out of elective bilateral double knee replacement surgery. Forgive me for listening as his mother and wife conversed waiting for him to come out of anesthesia.

PNN readers are all too acutely aware of how pain medications are no longer properly given for serious conditions -- which would seemingly include bilateral double knee replacement. As my compatriot emerged from anesthesia, it was very audibly obvious that he was quite understandably in unimaginable agony. Multiple nurses and techs rushed in and out, and at one point a resident was summoned as the young man was having difficulty breathing.

There was serious conversation about rushing him back into surgery when I heard a loud thump. My roommate had hit his head against the headboard, knocking himself out. His relatives argued with the nurses and resident about what pain medicines should be administered during his recovery.

We live in an ungodly, strange and insidiously cruel perverse world!  When medical professionals seriously consider Tramadol as the most viable and appropriate medicine at such a time, we have reached a new low standard of medical barbarity in these United States of America.

Paging Dr. Sessions, paging Dr. Sessions….

Yes, Tramadol is a somewhat effective pain reliever for some people. But for an operation as critically complex as bilateral double knee replacement surgery?   It never was effective for me and it engendered extreme vomiting for several days.

The agonized screams of that young man over three days still haunt my sleep today -- hopefully, not again tonight.

All of us are familiar with the 1 to 10 pain scale and how it often seems wholly inadequate for describing the pain that many of us feel every day. When the young fellow awoke from his self-induced head to the headboard knockout, he was asked what his pain level was at that moment. Three numbers unmistakably rang out, loud, clear and true: “555! What the blank do you think?”

His anguish was finally lessened by multiple doses of Dilaudid, both orally and intravenously. He was also administered Celebrex for inflammation, and oxycodone. I was a very personally-interested witness to this for several days.

He and I left the hospital at almost the same time, me to go home with my beloved, and he to a rehabilitation facility nearby. His last pain attestation before leaving was “10 or 12.” I was utterly appalled to hear him say that “I will do it all over again” if he were unable to resume his bodybuilding career after rehabilitation.

Well, I have had my follow-up visit with my GP now. He renewed my oxycodone prescription without even asking me about it. For that, I am eternally grateful to God and to my kindhearted physician. He explained to me that he was very glad that I had listened to his nurse’s urging to go to the ER.

I asked him, “Why are my memories of Christmas just a month ago so very foggy?”

It was then my physician made it very clear to me, for the first time, that I had almost died from blood poisoning and kidney failure.

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Tom Parker was born in beautiful Charleston, South Carolina. He currently lives in the Albany region of frozen upstate New York with his wonderful Vermont wife of 30 years, Kelly Sue. They have four adult children. Tom has multiple spine problems, including severe cervical spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, and was born with just one kidney.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Don’t Take Away Our Medicine

By Lynn Joyce, Guest Columnist

I am a 62-year-old woman who -- aside from my intensely painful back --- enjoyed a full life of work, swimming, going to the gym, outings to various places with my husband and friends, and running my household.

A few years ago, my back pain became so severe I had to move from my primary care doctor to pain management after all the solutions we tried, including physical therapy, various pain treatments, x-rays and MRIs could not diagnose or in the end treat me. I went to a doctor in Sarasota who gave me pain medicine. which helped a little. I also had several procedures under anesthetic, which again did not totally relieve the pain.

I was desperate, as I spent much of the day and night with ice packs on my back to ease the pain. My ordinary life went down the drain, my husband got fed up with me not being able to accompany him and looking after my home went downhill.

I cried as I went to bed early with a sleeping pill to take away the pain -- though this did not always work as the pain woke me up. I tried various types of pain medicine and the one that worked best was oxycodone.

Nearly a year ago my doctors finally found a combination of drugs that made me pain free and able to resume my normal life. I was ecstatic to be able to do all the things I enjoyed again and to be able to run my home and look after my family.

I then had a shock a month ago when my doctor told me that my medicine would have to be reduced. I had two tearful visits to his office, where he told me that starting July 1st I would receive only one oxycodone a day.  

LYNN JOYCE

LYNN JOYCE

My doctor knows that this is not even a therapeutic dose and yet is being forced to break his sacred oath to "First do no harm." After getting my life back, I was so upset that I would have to go back to my previous existence, where every day is full of pain and there is very little joy.

I am not a drug addict. I am a person that needs medication for a condition that curtails my enjoyment of life, just as much as another person who needs a drug to alleviate their condition or keep them alive. My doctor should be allowed and supported in the care of his patients, not vilified by government and media alike.

There are legitimate people who are truly suffering and need the medication that is being taken from them. I am one of these people -- the other side of this so-called crisis – and we are being ignored and used as scapegoats by the government.

I do not understand how such arbitrary, draconian laws can be passed in a modern society. This government’s heavy-handed solution to the "opioid crisis" is targeting the wrong people. We are not the ones selling drugs like fentanyl and heroin, we are just people with an illness. We are not lawbreakers, although some of us may be driven to escape the pain with illegal drugs or, in some tragic cases, suicide.

There are studies that totally refute the reasoning behind these opioid laws and guidelines, doctors who have tried to stop this from happening to their patients, and those who know the science and social reasons that show we are not the cause. We are not out there selling our drugs or "doctor shopping."

I see and read daily about politicians and stores that are jumping onto the false bandwagon to further their own careers and profits. Pharmacies that are too afraid or are taking a false moral stance about the prescriptions they will or won't fill.

There has been mishandling of prescriptions in the past, but systems have been put in place to remedy that. Yet the media screams about this person or that who has overdosed and stores like Walmart that will limit a person’s medication to seven days. I hope there are the few that get opioids for short term use if they need it, but they are not long-term pain sufferers who need their therapeutic doses daily to ameliorate their pain.

I have read that companies are being forced by the DEA to reduce their drug production so much that there are worries about hospitals not having enough to treat patients or with surgeries being delayed.

Those of us that need long term drug treatment are your family member, a friend, or a familiar stranger like the postal worker who you see every day. We are not the archetypal addict that people think of when the words “drug user” comes up. Think of a time in your life when you or someone you care about was in pain and were helped by medication to make it go away.

We have that pain every day and it doesn't go away without our medicine. The government or anyone else in a position of power who keeps on pushing this inhumane agenda should walk in our shoes for a day.

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Lynn Joyce lives in Florida.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.