West Virginia Issues Warning About Fake Xanax Laced with Fentanyl

By Paul Gaita 06/24/16

With fake fentanyl confirmed in nearby states, West Virginia officials fear that a recent rash of overdoses might be linked to the deadly drug.

West Virginia Issues Warning About Fake Xanax Laced with Fentanyl
Photo SF Health Network

Health officials in West Virginia are warning residents about the presence of pills made to resemble Xanax, which actually contain the powerful prescription opioid fentanyl. The West Virginia Poison Center issued an advisory on Monday, June 20 that noted several states, including Ohio, had confirmed cases of overdoses caused by counterfeit tablets of two-milligram Xanax that had been laced with the synthetic narcotic.

Three unverified cases of opioid overdoses had been reported to the poison center between June 11 and June 20, in which the individuals reported that they had taken what they believed to be Xanax prior to suffering an overdose.

“We’ve gotten enough [calls about overdoses] that I’m concerned that we’ve got a problem,” said Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, director of the West Virginia Poison Center. “[They are] not confirmed, but it’s been confirmed in Ohio right next to us, and we’ve gotten enough calls that I’m concerned that we might have the problem here.” Dr. Scharman believes that the appearance of the tablets is less familiar to individuals—two-milligram Xanax are bar-shaped and white in color, and feature indent dividers and the brand name on the surface of the pill—and therefore, more difficult to detect in counterfeit form. 

“The public [should] know that if they have purchased Xanax through their pharmacy as they would normally get their prescription filled, they’re fine,” she told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “There’s nothing wrong with brand-name Xanax provided through normal pharmacies, but borrowing or using drugs purchased for someone else is never a good idea. If they can’t guarantee that it’s not one of the fake Xanax, then that could lead to death.”

Cases of overdose and even death as a result of taking counterfeit Xanax have been reported in numerous states since 2015, including multiple deaths in San Francisco in October, and in Florida and northern California in 2016. West Virginia is already struggling with a wave of fatal overdoses from heroin laced with fentanyl, which rose from 55 deaths in 2014 to more than 150 last year.

“The number of deaths has gone to alarmingly high levels,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of West Virginia’s Bureau of Public Health, in March. “With fentanyl, people are going into overdose and dying more quickly.” The West Virginia Poison Center is asking individuals who may have obtained suspected counterfeit Xanax pills to submit them for testing, and to report any cases of overdose from such pills for monitoring.

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