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Acting U.S. Attorney Addresses Increasing Danger of Counterfeit Prescription Opioids

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 Illicitly Manufactured Pills Sold as Oxycodone Can Lead to Overdose and Death

BOISE – Acting U.S. Attorney Rafael M. Gonzalez, Jr. and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent in Charge Frank Tarentino today highlighted the danger that counterfeit prescription pills pose to our community. Opioid and prescription drug abuse is at an all-time high. In 2019, 70,630 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States and more than 70 percent of those deaths involved an opioid.

Historically, the opioid epidemic began with a rapid increase in the prescribing of opioids starting in the 1990s. It continued when those addicted to opioids began to use heroin because it was cheaper and more readily available. Now, the most recent part of this epidemic is the increase in availability of counterfeit pills. Counterfeit pills are illicitly manufactured in clandestine labs, mostly using fentanyl as the active ingredient, and are made to look like legitimate prescription opioids commonly prescribed to alleviate pain or anxiety. These counterfeit pills are then illegally sold by street drug dealers as Oxycodone, Xanax, Percocet, or other similar drugs. Counterfeit pills are also being sold over the internet and delivered by mail. These counterfeit pills have led to increased overdoses and deaths across the country but particularly here in the Western region of the United States where there was a 67 percent increase in such death rates from 2018 to 2019. It is important to note that there is no concern of counterfeit pills entering the legitimate prescription supply chain.

“Prescription opioid abuse has already taken a devastating toll on our community,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Gonzalez. “But we have also seen a terrifying rise in the prevalence of counterfeit prescription pills being sold on the street and online. The public must be aware that while these pills may look like prescription drugs, they likely contain the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.” He went on to emphasize that, “a lethal dosage of fentanyl is just two milligrams, equivalent in size to a few grains of salt, as compared to a lethal dose of heroin at 30 milligrams, and that’s why communities everywhere have tragically experienced more fatal overdoses. That pill you bought off the street could be the last one you ever take.”

Counterfeit pills are incredibly dangerous because these imitation pills often look exactly like prescription Oxycodone in size, shape, color, and markings. In other words, there is no way to tell whether a pill purchased illicitly on the internet or the street is actually Oxycodone or a more powerful drug. The picture below on the left is an image of a legitimate Oxycodone pill. The picture on the right is an image of counterfeit Oxycodone pills.

Legitimate Oxycodone versus counterfeit Oxycodone pills

“Between 2017 and 2019, there was great cause for concern when Idaho experienced a gradual increase in the number of drug related overdoses and deaths due to the misuse and abuse of prescription opiates and the increased availability of heroin,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Frank Tarentino. “Alarmingly, in the last six months, the availability and seizure of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills has exploded in the region. Law enforcement and public health officials have also noted a sharp increase in overdoses and deaths from fentanyl. The DEA and our law enforcement partners are committed to stemming the tide of this surge of lethal pills on our city streets by targeting the criminal networks who are profiteering while causing death in our communities,” SAC Tarantino concluded.

In 2019, synthetic opioids caused more overdose deaths than any other opioid including heroin. Synthetic opioids accounted for approximately 73 percent of all opioid-involved deaths. Based on a sampling of tablets seized nationwide in 2019, DEA found that 27 percent contained potentially lethal doses of fentanyl. “Frankly, if it weren’t for the outstanding work of first responders administering naloxone (an opioid antagonist that rapidly reverse opioid overdose) and saving lives of those who have overdosed, the number of deaths would be much, much higher,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

Unless prescription drugs are obtained from an authorized medical provider or pharmacy, the public should not consume or even handle these pills. The synthetic opioids contained in them are often lethal if consumed even if in the smallest amounts. All Idahoans are urged to only use prescription drugs prescribed to them by legitimate health care providers and obtained from their pharmacy. “I’m urging you to share this potentially life-saving message with friends and family today. Help us save a life,” Mr. Gonzalez said.


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