Killer Fentanyl Patches Still Legit
Selling a drug 100 times more potent than morphine earns individuals harsh prison sentences—while Big Pharma gets a nod and a wink.
On Tuesday Robert Fischer, a 59-year-old South Dakotan, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of manslaughter and distribution of a controlled substance—a conviction and sentence that might bring to mind a hard-core dealer. But the controlled substance that Fischer sold to Tom Bennett for $25 was a single Fentanyl patch. Fentanyl is an opiate-based prescription painkiller that's 100 times more potent than morphine—strong enough, as it happened, to kill 42-year-old Bennett. The patches are not only the top-selling synthetic opioid drug but dangerously addictive, and the product has been recalled seven times over the past decade for various problems. The long-lasting super-narcotic is linked to dozens of deaths every year and addicts have been known to go to extreme lengths to get another dose, including digging through medical waste. (Diversion of the drug to the black market is massive; for an intense high, the patches are often cut up and eaten, or the gel removed from the patch and smoked. Drugmakers have developed innovative patches that are more abuse resistant.) But patches aren't necessarily Fentanyl's most enticing delivery system: it's also available as a fast-acting berry-flavored lollipop called Actiq ("percopop" on the street). The manufacturer of this sweet delight had to pay a $245 million-dollar settlement for marketing it inappropriately as an “ER on a stick.” In February, the FDA finally got around to checking out the factory belonging to Noven Pharmaceuticals, which is responsible for manufacturing the dicey patches. The understaffed agency found that not only were controls of the strength and purity of the drug inadequate but the patches themselves were defective. However, the FDA’s warning falls far short of a recall; they are still being doled out by doctors, some of whom prescribe it inappropriately. So while the drug continues to claim lives—and while individuals receive severe sentences for distributing it—Fentanyl's makers still face no legal repercussions for faulty manufacturing practices.