The news stories about fake prescription drugs on the streets just keep coming. Counterfeit OxyContin is being sold. Fentanyl-laced Xanax knock-offs are making the rounds, and “heroin pills” are being passed off as legit pain medication.
This is not what you were told to “just say no” to when you were in school, and even your friendly DARE officer couldn’t warn you about the dangerous drugs out there now.
A recent Gallup poll of Americans’ perceptions of prescription drugs found that more than 4 in 10 people see prescription painkillers and heroin as a “crisis” or “very serious problem” where they live. “Smaller percentages of Americans–1 in 3 or fewer–view cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana as a crisis or very serious problem where they live,” Gallup said.
Turns out, there’s a lot to be concerned about. America, we have a problem.
The US is in the middle of a fentanyl crisis, says the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and federal authorities are working to crack down on the circulation of fake prescription drugs that aren’t what they seem. These counterfeit “medications” contain the deadly synthetic opioid, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine, and they are being sold as the real thing to consumers who likely have no idea what they are getting into.
The result: Fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths seen unlike ever before.
Demand creates ‘enormous profit potential’ for traffickers
The DEA’s July 16 report offers a detailed look into the dire situation that has led to unprecedented overdoses and deaths in the US. It explains why it’s happening and who’s responsible for the deadly counterfeit prescription drug supply in the States.
Drug traffickers, motivated by “enormous profit potential,” are exploiting high consumer demand for prescription medications by producing inexpensive, fraudulent prescription pills containing fentanyls, the agency says. According to its data, these counterfeit prescription drugs sell for $10 to $20 per pill in US illicit drug markets.
The crisis in the US is powered by global connections. Fake prescription drugs containing fentanyl are being smuggled into the country from Mexico and Canada, authorities say, and traffickers are buying powdered fentanyls and pill presses from China to create the fake pill supply in the US. The DEA’s report also says China is the primary source of supply for fentanyls and fentanyl precursors destined for the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, reported that an estimated 4.3 million people were nonmedical users of pain relievers in the United States in 2014; a population second only in size to marijuana users. This high demand for real prescription drugs only motivates drug traffickers to produce counterfeit pills containing fentanyls to increase their cash flow and meet market demand for these products.
Authorities expect the increased production of fake pills to create more opioid-dependent people as well as boost the number of overdoses and deaths. Data show there were more than 700 fentanyl-related deaths reported in the United States between late 2013 and 2014.
The year 2014 is when opioids were involved in 28,647 deaths, or 61 percent of all drug overdose deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also reports the rate of opioid overdoses has tripled since 2000.
The high number of deaths prompted the CDC to declare the opioid overdose deaths as an epidemic.
Mislabeled Pills Reportedly Found in Prince’s Home
With the supply of fake pills in wide circulation in the US, it’s anyone’s guess where they will end up. Right now, US authorities are investigating whether some of them ended up in the hands of the late pop star and musical icon Prince, who died of a fentanyl overdose in April 2016. According to media reports, authorities seized mislabeled pills in Prince’s Minnesota home that appeared to look authentic, but actually contained fentanyl.
The pills reportedly marked as hydrocodone were tested after his death, and results showed they contained the potent synthetic opioid. Billboard’s report notes that no one has said whether Prince, whose full name is Prince Rogers Nelson, took any of the mislabeled pills. It has only been reported that he died of fentanyl toxicity, according to the autopsy report.
Fake Prescription Drugs Not Just on the Streets
Fake prescription drugs that are not related to the opioid crisis have also prompted warnings to the public. In May 2016, AARP alerted the public that pharmacies and hospitals throughout the US are being flooded with fake prescription drugs, and that adults age 50 and older are most at risk because they are responsible for 71 percent of outpatient prescriptions.
Traffickers are now focusing on passing off fake medications for cancer, high cholesterol, and mental health conditions, AARP said.
“By all accounts, the drug supply in the United States is among the safest and most controlled in the world. But it’s under a growing threat from organized and white-collar criminals pushing stolen, out-of-date, adulterated, or fake medications.”
“They make their way into pharmacies, nursing homes, hospitals, and doctors’ offices. At best, they are suspect because they are sold outside of the regulated supply chains. At worst, they may be medically worthless or even toxic,” says the AARP Bulletin article.
Toxic indeed as some of the drugs reportedly contain heavy metals, rat poison, highway paint, and other harmful substances. Others may have the wrong ingredients or the wrong quantities of ingredients, according to the FDA’s Q-and-A guide on the topic. AARP quotes a 2014 Government Accountability Office report that estimates there are 36,000 “rogue” internet-based pharmacies, and that many are “selling drugs that contain too much, too little, or no active ingredients.”
Consumers are advised to take sensible precautions. If you’re shopping online, choose one of the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites, AARP advises.
Teens and College Students at Risk, Too
Prescription drug abuse is already a problem among teenagers and college students who are looking to get high for fun or to relieve stress and boredom, among other reasons. This means there is a good chance they’ll come across counterfeit pills, particularly because the fake versions of these pills are cheaper than the real thing.
Young students may be under the impression that prescription drugs are not as harmful as illicit ones because they are typically prescribed by a physician or other health care practitioner, but that, of course, isn’t true. Parents are encouraged to talk with their children about the dangers of prescription drugs and warn them about the counterfeit versions out there.
Stimulants such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse are known to be abused by members of the college crowd. According to a news release about a 2014 online survey conducted by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, “the abuse of prescription stimulants is becoming normalized among current college students and other young adults.”
The study, which collected the responses of 18- to 25-year-olds, found that young adults often misuse and abuse prescription stimulants while attempting to manage the demands of academics, work, and social pressures. According to the research, 1 in 5 college students (20 percent) report abusing prescription stimulants at least once in their lifetime, compared to 1 in 7 non-students (15 percent).
Experts offer tips to Fox Business in this article on how to tell real pills from fake ones.
“The best indication would be if it tastes different, appears different in color, or reacts differently in the way it dissolves or breaks,” Carmen Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy said to Fox Business. “If anything appears abnormal, people should call their pharmacy or doctor immediately.”
In the case of a pill bought from a street dealer, the person may not want to take it and dispose of it immediately.
Struggling with Prescription Drug Addiction?
The reality is no age group is immune to prescription drug abuse, and now with counterfeit medications popping up far more often than they used to, people who abuse these pills may knowingly or unknowingly be buying fake prescription drugs if they buy them off the streets.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an estimated 48 million people (age 12 and older) have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in their lifetime. That figure represents about 20 percent of the US population, says WebMD. Some of these people will go on to develop an addiction to pain medication and may abuse other substances as well.
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