Counterfeit Opioids Expand Their Lethal Presence on Black Market

By Paul Gaita 11/28/17

The increase in counterfeit pills can be linked to the federal crackdown on doctor-prescribed opioids over the last year. 

drug dealer selling pills

Media coverage of the opioid epidemic in the United States is flush with stories about counterfeit painkillers designed to resemble prescription pain medication that actually contain harmful and sometimes deadly combinations of other drugs, most notably fentanyl.

Law enforcement and health officials throughout North America have been fighting the expansion of such products in the street trade since 2012; the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a warning about the rise in counterfeit pills in 2015, but the casualties from such substances continues to rise.

Now, a new story in the Washington Post illustrates that not only have counterfeit drugs maintained a foothold in the black market, they have actually become more ubiquitous in 2017, which presents an even greater level of threat to users.

As the Post feature notes, the increase in counterfeit pills can be linked to legislation designed to monitor and limit doctor-prescribed opioids that have been credited with fueling the dependency crisis in the United States; the consequence of such actions was a decrease in the availability of pharmaceutically produced painkillers, leaving many with dependency issues to either turn to heroin or pills sold on the black market. 

But as users, health professionals and law enforcement soon discovered, many of the opioid pills bought through illicit means resembled prescription medication, but actually contained compounds of unstable and often dangerous substances.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl has been found in numerous cases, but as the Post story illustrates, other potentially hazardous drugs have been uncovered in counterfeit drugs, including U-47700, a synthetic opioid responsible for dozens of deaths, including at least four Georgia residents among 28 who were sickened after purchasing what they believed to be a low dose of Percocet in June 2017.

The chemicals used to make counterfeit pills have been traced to Mexico or China, which reportedly enter the United States through its southwestern border or through the mail.

Dealers can manufacture thousands of pills at a time with pill presses in home-based operations that, as the Post noted, are similar to meth lab networks in the '90s and early 2000s. The presses, which are supposed to be registered with the DEA, have become prevalent in the drug trade; Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported confiscating nearly 400 such presses at the Port of Los Angeles in 2017, up from two found in 2011.

These pill mills have managed to turn out an astonishing number of pills, flooding regions throughout the United States while using the relative anonymity afforded by suburban life. Authorities intercepted a package in Chamberlain, South Dakota, which contained 20,000 counterfeit pills manufactured to resemble oxycodone that actually contained fentanyl.

A second package containing the same number was also intercepted; as Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Mammenga noted, the sheer amount of pills exceeded the actual number of residents of Chamberlin by thousands.

Cases like this, and like the alleged drug ring discovered in a Salt Lake City suburb—where, as the Post detailed, six individuals were accused of turning out nearly 100,000 pills using presses, dyes and stamps—do not seem to be rare occurrences. Doug Coleman, a DEA special agent in charge of the Arizona field office, said that the opioid epidemic is fueling a demand that dealers are meeting with these dangerous counterfeits.

"I think that these pills are going to be becoming more and more popular," said Coleman. "And I think we’ll see more and more of them coming across."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.