DEA: Fake pills containing fentanyl help drive OD deaths

WASHINGTON (AP) – A growing number of fake prescription pills that contain potentially deadly fentanyl are helping drive overdose deaths to record levels in the United States, including some now manufactured in rainbow colors designed to look like candy, federal officials said Tuesday.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents are working to crack down on violent drug cartels in Mexico believed to be selling the drugs to the United States, Attorney General Merrick Garland said. Between May and September, the DEA and local police around the country seized more than 10 million fentanyl pills and hundreds of pounds of powder, he said.

Immensely powerful synthetic drugs like fentanyl are behind record overdose deaths in the U.S. Law enforcement officials nationwide have struggled to combat the surge of drugs in urban and rural communities. The global coronavirus pandemic has overshadowed the US opioid epidemic, but as overdose deaths topped 100,000 during the 12-month period ending in April 2021, it rose back into the public consciousness.

“I read too many reports of too many cases, including too many young people who ended up dying after taking just one pill with fentanyl, often disguised as something else,” Garland said.

First reported in February, rainbow pills have been seized in 21 states now, said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. While fentanyl is increasingly commonly disguised as oxycodone or another prescription drug, rainbow pills are on the rise.

“We believe it’s being marketed and targeted to young people,” Milgram said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also sounded the alarm over the weekend about the rise of the drug in New York City and Long Island as he pushed for new funding to fight its spread.

Two Mexican drug cartels are responsible for the majority of fentanyl in the United States, federal authorities said. The Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel purchase precursor chemicals from China and then transport them to the United States, where they are sometimes sold on social media platforms.

Over the past four months, authorities have investigated nearly 400 cases, 51 of them linked to overdoses and 35 directly linked to the two cartels. In addition to being squeezed into counterfeit pills, fentanyl powder is also being moved into other drugs such as cocaine and heroin, Milgram said.

“Our top operational priority has been and will continue to be defeating these two cartels,” she said.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be 50 times more potent than heroin, and even a small amount can be fatal. Counterfeit prescription pills are especially dangerous because it’s hard to tell how strong they are.

About two-thirds of overdose deaths in the United States have been linked to fentanyl or other powerful, illegally manufactured synthetic opioids.

Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said it contains synthetic drugs with law enforcement is a challenge because the drug can be manufactured in laboratories anywhere rather than grown in fields like cocaine or heroin – and because it is so potent and traded in smaller quantities.

“How the hell are law enforcement supposed to find a few tons in an economy that trades megatons of commodities?” Caulkins asked.

Caulkins said the best way to deal with the fentanyl crisis is to spend money on treatment and increase the availability of naloxonea drug that reverses overdoses — but added that arrests are being used to reduce supply Might be worth a try.


Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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