Counterfeit prescription drugs are a growing problem in the U.S. Demand has grown sharply over the last few years as prescription drug prices increase and the need for them grows at alarming rates. Many people seek cheaper alternatives, including ordering their prescription medications online.
The problem is that many people believe they are ordering medication from a legitimate pharmacy somewhere around the world, but that isn’t always true. Also, people who may have a dependency on certain prescription medications can’t simply walk into a pharmacy and pick them up without a prescription.
Common Counterfeit Fentanyl-Laced Prescription Drugs
Many commonly prescribed medications are laced with fentanyl including:
Fentanyl-laced prescription drugs are often produced in foreign countries like China and then make their way into the U.S. via drug cartels operating in Mexico.
The more you know about the problem of fentanyl laced prescription drugs, the better prepared you will be to make sure you or someone you love isn’t caught unaware and at risk as a result.
How Big Is the Problem of Fentanyl-Laced Prescription Medications?
The problem is broader than you might realize and seems to be growing. The Drug and Enforcement Agency (DEA) reported that it tested more than 13,000 fentanyl exhibits in 2015 (the most recent year for data tracking at this time) compared to fewer than 8,000 in 2014 and a 65 percent increase from one year to the next. In other words, the problem is growing sharply even after a steep decline in fentanyl-related overdoses a few years previously. Those instances involved the combination of fentanyl and heroin or cocaine.
Additionally, there were more than 700 deaths related to fentanyl in the U.S. between 2013 and 2014, before the sharp rise occurred. These deaths may have been avoided if the drugs had not been laced with fentanyl.
The problem is that the counterfeit Fentanyl-laced drugs look like real prescriptions you would receive from the pharmacy, which makes it difficult to identify which drugs are pure and which have been mixed with Fentanyl. This makes it extremely dangerous to the person using the drugs and to first-responders who try to save their lives in the aftermath of an overdose.
Consequences of Mixing Fentanyl With Other Prescription Drugs
There are many complications and consequences that can arise from taking drugs that have been laced with fentanyl. A few of the consequences to consider include:
- Extreme lethality in smaller doses
- Unintentional mixing fentanyl with other drugs or alcohol
- Increased number of people who are dependent on opiates
An added complexity is that emergency responders may be unwittingly exposed as they try to help someone who has overdosed. They can suffer ill effects from touching or breathing the fentanyl. This risk is magnified because no one can warn first responders of the possibility of fentanyl exposure.
32 people between the ages of 16 and 64 in Phoenix died from fentanyl overdoses during an 18-month period. A separate incident in San Francisco involved seven residents who sought medical help within one month after taking Norco that had been laced with fentanyl. This followed an even larger outbreak that occurred over a two-week period in Sacramento County in which 12 people were poisoned by fake Norco pills.
What Is Fentanyl?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that acts very much like morphine. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and was responsible for 68 percent of the 69 fatal overdoses in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2015.
To work, fentanyl binds to the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors control emotions and pain and have a wide range of effects that include:
- Extreme relaxation
- Respiratory arrest
- Respiratory depression
The real danger is that the potential lethal doses are so small, only two milligrams, so the risk of overdose, especially among people who are unaware they’re even taking fentanyl, is substantial.
In a medical environment, fentanyl is administered by lozenges, transdermal patches, or injections to treat severe pain or pain in the aftermath of surgery.
In addition to being laced with other prescription medications or designed to mimic them, fentanyl is also often combined with heroin or cocaine and serves to amplify the potency of these drugs. It also amplifies the risks.
Prescription fentanyl includes products like:
On the street, you will find several other names for this drug including:
- China Girl
- Tango and Cash
- Dance Fever
- Murder 8
Originally, the focus was to mix fentanyl with illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine. More recently, the focus has shifted to making the synthetic drug fentanyl in a form that looks exactly like other drugs on the market or mixes it with them. It isn’t uncommon to find fentanyl mixed with OxyContin, for instance, or to find manufacturers mixing fentanyl and Xanax and then flooding U.S. streets with it.
The problem that bears repeating is that most people who are getting fentanyl on the streets have no idea what they are taking — and this can have deadly consequences for the person using fentanyl-laced prescription drugs. First responders who are called to help them can also be poisoned by exposure.
Why Are People Lacing Drugs With Fentanyl Before Selling Them?
The big question you’re probably asking is “Why would someone make and distribute counterfeit fentanyl-laced prescription drugs?” The simple answer is because they can. One reason we’re beginning to see more instances of fentanyl-laced prescription drugs is that it is easy to synthesize. The other reason is that it’s cheap. Drug cartels can make bigger profits and branch out into newer markets by synthesizing prescription medications that have been laced with fentanyl.
Another problem, especially when it comes to drugs like fentanyl disguised as OxyContin, is that people think they are taking prescription medications that aren’t a danger, or prescription medications that they’ve had before without ill effects. That simply isn’t the case.
There are no safeguards set into place or standards and regulations in the illicit drug community, so there is no one to provide assurances that pills on the street are authentic and not laced with fentanyl.
Some drug cartels and labs create fake prescription drugs laced with fentanyl because it allows them to quickly turn a much bigger profit. A recent NPR report states that because it is so easy to make fentanyl, many labs are buying the raw ingredients from China and Japan and manufacturing it themselves to cut costs and improve their cut of the profits.
Another incentive for drug makers to lace drugs with fentanyl is the intensity of the high. It’s a dangerous intensity, but it’s one that can, and does, increase demand for the products. The drug cartel is big business for those involved. The powerful combination of growing demand and diminished costs for production make lacing drugs with fentanyl an attractive proposition for those making and supplying them.
What Is Being Done About the Problem?
With the problem of fake prescription drugs laced with fentanyl on the rise, the question of what’s being done to solve the problem is one that is front and center on the minds of people across the country. The following organizations have all testified before Congress about the growing problem:
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
- Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
- The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)
These agencies, together with lawmakers in Washington, DC, are working together to formulate a strategy for addressing the fentanyl problem on multiple fronts. The effort involves many strategies that address the problem while also acknowledging the practical difficulties of doing so.
How Is the Government Addressing the Problem?
Prevention is the best cure for addiction and many other issues in life. If fewer people are addicted to opioids, the demand for drugs that are commonly laced with fentanyl will decrease, and supplies will dry up.
The first step is to involve healthcare. The government believes that a critical first step to reduce the dependence on opiates is to improve pain management responses in healthcare. The second step is to make the medications that address opioid addiction more widely available, such as:
- Extended-release naltrexone
Next, naloxone, the drug commonly used to address fentanyl overdoses, needs to be widely available to first responders, those who abuse opiates, and people on the ground who would be in a position to save lives by administering it.
Finally, people who overdose on opioids, like fentanyl or drugs commonly laced with fentanyl, need treatment in an effort to prevent this type of overdose, or something worse, from happening in the future.
The government is also engaging public and private sector forces, as well as government agencies, to address the problem jointly. The U.S. government is working with the World Health Organization’s International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force (also known as IMPACT) to develop tools on multiple fronts to address the problem of drug counterfeiting:
Lawmakers believe that one of the new technologies being developed will offer some degree of success when dealing with the problem of counterfeiting drugs. RFID (radio frequency identification) chips and tags can be assigned to pharmaceutical products before they are shipped. This will help law enforcement agencies track the chemicals that are used to make counterfeit medications and, potentially, cut off the supply of these chemicals before they are used to make dangerous fake prescription drugs.
Challenges of Attacking the Fentanyl Problem
There are many challenges that fentanyl presents lawmakers for addressing the problem — at least on a policy level. These challenges include things like:
- Ease of transport of much smaller volumes of the drugs
- Ease of access to the chemicals needed to make the drugs
- Established gateways bringing drugs into the country
- Need for education
Few people understand that the problem exists or how widespread it has become. Educating people about fake drugs and drugs laced with fentanyl is a step in the right direction. The DEA has labeled counterfeit drugs and drugs laced with fentanyl as a global threat, and it is taking the fentanyl crisis seriously.
Part of the problem of opiate addiction is the growing tolerance to the drug. People need increasing amounts of the drug to get the same pain relief or sensations of euphoria. Fentanyl promises a bigger bang to some drug abusers, making it an attractive risk.
In other words, despite the government’s best efforts to address the problem, there are practical challenges that remain in place. To some extent, this leaves it to drug users and their loved ones to take on the responsibility of safeguarding their health and the health of people they love by getting the facts and remaining guarded when purchasing drugs like Xanax, OxyContin, and other drugs that are commonly laced with fentanyl.
How Can You Tell if a Drug Is Laced?
There aren’t many outward signs that a pill is laced or authentic, but there are some things you can do to help ensure you’re getting the correct pharmaceutical. Only purchase them with valid prescriptions from licensed, reputable pharmacies in the U.S. or directly from your physician.
Any time you turn to a non-medical source for prescription and other drugs, you’re potentially taking your life into your hands. You have no way of authenticating the drugs or verifying that they aren’t laced with fentanyl or other potentially harmful additives for that matter.
While there are no guarantees, you can rely on your senses to help look for signs that your prescription may have been tampered with or that it might not be authentic. These signs include things like:
- The product packaging is altered in appearance
- The prescriptions come in unsealed containers
- The pills themselves look different or have subtle differences
- The product has a different smell or taste
- The side effects are different than what you previously experienced taking the same prescription drug
If you don’t have a prescription for the medications you need, like OxyContin, Xanax, Percocet, and Norco, seek alternative available pain management treatments. If you’re dependent on these medications, consider getting treatment for your dependency, so you no longer need to live in fear of overdose or death.
What Can You Do to Protect Yourself or Your Loved Ones From Fentanyl?
Drug addiction and dependency is not easy for anyone. If you’re the one struggling with prescription drug dependency, there is no denying it is difficult for you. The toll prescription drugs take on your body, your mind and your emotional state are quite extreme.
It’s equally devastating to watch someone you love struggle with addiction. You want to do everything in your ability to keep them safe from harm, but you feel powerless to protect them. There is no easy answer, but there are things you can do to help.
Understand that naloxone is used to treat overdoses, and it could save you or a loved one. In 14 states currently, you can purchase naloxone without a prescription. These states include:
- Rhode Island
- New Jersey
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
If you do not live in one of these states, discuss your needs and concerns with your family physician and ask for a prescription. Keep in mind that some instances of fentanyl overdose will require more than one naloxone treatment and may require medical assistance or medical supervision in the aftermath to save a life.
The risk of overdose is much greater if drugs are laced with fentanyl, so it is critical to keep this treatment on hand for fast action if an overdose occurs. Naloxone is a safe, easy-to-use, and cost-effective treatment option that saves lives and is believed to be responsible for reversing 27,000 drug overdoses between 1996 and 2014. The hope is that wider availability of naloxone kits will present a sharp increase in the number of overdose reversals in the future.
Prevention is always the best cure. You prevent opioid overdoses and reduce the risk of exposure to fentanyl by educating yourself and others and by seeking treatment for addiction. Ending your struggle with addiction or supporting a loved done through the recovery process is the best thing you can do to protect yourself or your loved ones from fentanyl-laced drugs.
It only takes two milligrams of fentanyl to create a lethal dose. For those who are unaware they are taking fentanyl, ingesting it is extremely dangerous. In drug overdose cases, testing for fentanyl isn’t common, so some experts believe that the number of overdoses and deaths attributed to it are inaccurate and reported too low.
Education can reduce the risk of overdosing on fentanyl-laced prescription drugs. Take the time to learn the facts, and prepare your home and your family to prevent and safely respond to overdoses.
Getting Help for a Fentanyl or Prescription Drug Addiction
If you or your loved one is addicted to prescription drugs or fentanyl, contact 12 Keys Rehab to discuss getting help with your addiction to fentanyl or participating in our prescription drugs rehab program in a comfortable, private environment with caring and compassionate counselors and addiction specialists.