Real vs. fake oxycodone

(Images courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration)

An alert issued Monday by the Drug Enforcement Administration about an alarming increase in the lethality and availability of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine isn’t a surprise to Rice County law enforcement.

Area public safety officials have been seeing them for years, and blame much of the increase in overdoses on the fake pills.

Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen and Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn have both warned residents about the dangers of getting pills from sources other than legitimate pharmacies.

“(They’re) not mixed in a pharmaceutical lab. One pill might have nothing (no fentanyl), one will have a double dose,” Bohlen said in fall 2020.

In January, two Faribault residents died from an overdose of counterfeit painkillers. Investigators believe they’re related to a fatal overdose the prior weekend in Apple Valley. In February 2018, three people in Northfield survived overdoses on pills containing carfentanil, an opioid used to sedate large animals.

Dunn, the sheriff, says fake prescription pills continue to be a problem in Rice County, and that the so called “hot batches” tend to come in waves.

DEA’s Public Safety Alert, the first in six years, seeks to raise public awareness of a significant nationwide surge in counterfeit pills that are mass-produced by criminal drug networks in labs, deceptively marketed as legitimate prescription pills, and are killing unsuspecting Americans at an unprecedented rate.

More than 9.5 million counterfeit pills were seized so far this year, more than the last two years combined. DEA laboratory testing reveals a dramatic rise in the number of counterfeit pills containing at least two milligrams of fentanyl, which is considered a lethal dose. A deadly dose of fentanyl is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.

In Minnesota, DEA investigators have seized approximately 74,000 pills so far this year. This marks a significant increase from the less than 1,500 pills seized just three years ago.

Sheriff Dunn on Monday expressed concerns anti-opioid medications like Narcan, which can be obtained pharmacies without a prescription, calling it a double-edged sword. The medicine, which is either injected or given sprayed into the nose, can help an overdose victim to survive a lethal dose, but because it can be administered by anyone, it often keeps law enforcement and treatment providers from learning the true scope of the problem.

“We’re saving lives, no doubt about it, but it’s kind of like we’re not fixing the problem of addiction,” he said.

Counterfeit pills are illegally manufactured by criminal drug networks and are made to look like real prescription opioid medications such as oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and alprazolam (Xanax); or stimulants like amphetamines (Adderall). Fake prescription pills are widely accessible and often sold on social media and e-commerce platforms — making them available to anyone with a smartphone, including minors.

“Across our five state division, we’ve seen a staggering influx in counterfeit pills,” DEA Omaha Division Special Agent in Charge Justin C. King said. “This is not an East Coast or West Coast problem, but one that the entire nation is facing. We’re seeing these pills in our own Midwestern communities. By raising awareness to this alarming trend, we’re hopeful that we can save families the heartache of losing a loved one. Every life is precious and we want to prevent as many people as possible from making a choice that has permanent repercussions.”

The vast majority of counterfeit pills brought into the United States are produced in Mexico, and China is supplying chemicals for the manufacturing of fentanyl in Mexico.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 93,000 people died of a drug overdose in the United States last year.

Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook contributed to this story.

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