Fake Norco Painkillers Kill 14 in California

By Keri Blakinger 04/28/16

The CDC has issued a warning about the fake pills, which contain fentanyl, acetaminophen, promethazine and traces of cocaine.

CDC Issues Warning After Fake Norco Painkillers Kills 14 People
photo viaShutterstock

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning people about an apparent flood of fake pills on the U.S. drug market.

According to Digital Journal, 14 people died in California in recent weeks from ingesting replica pills that are designed to resemble Norco but actually contain fentanyl. Many more have been hospitalized. Norco, an opioid pain medication for treating moderate to severe pain, contains hydrocodone and acetaminophen—the same ingredients found in Vicodin, another medium-strength opioid painkiller. When health officials got ahold of one of the counterfeit Norco pills from a patient who had overdosed, a test revealed it contained the much stronger fentanyl along with promethazine, acetaminophen and small amounts of cocaine. Promethazine, though it’s typically used to treat nausea and motion sickness, may boost the opioid high. 

The fake pills are typically brought from Asia to Mexico by drug cartels, which then transport them to the U.S. There have been an increasing number of reports of fentanyl-laced prescription pill lookalikes, especially in recent months, prompting law enforcement and health officials to issue warnings about the fake drugs. In February, Illinois State Police issued a warning that Xanax (a benzodiazepine) circulating in the area was actually a fake containing fentanyl. 

Responding to the recent outbreak of fake Norco poisonings in California, the DEA has made identifying the source of the fake pharmaceuticals “our number one priority.” In Canada, British Columbia declared a public health emergency from rising fentanyl overdose deaths in the province.

In its weekly Morbidity and Mortality report released Tuesday, the CDC warned the public about the dangers of lookalike pills. The recent outbreak of fake Norco poisonings began in Sacramento County, where 12 people died and 52 overdosed since late March. Two more people died in nearby Yolo County. Now, the pills have turned up in the Bay Area, but so far, no deaths. CDC officials are hoping Bay Area users will heed the warning and stay away from illegally obtained Norco pills. 

Drug overdose is currently the number one cause of accidental death in the country, with nearly 50,000 fatal overdoses in 2014 alone. Although not all of those deaths are opioid-related, the American Society of Addiction Medicine reported that at least 10,000 of them were heroin-related and at least 18,000 were related to prescription painkillers.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.