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DEA warns of surge in deadly fentanyl-laced pills

Lab analyses showed two of every five fake pills containing fentanyl contained a potentially lethal dose of the drug


This undated photo provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Phoenix Division shows a closeup of the fentanyl-laced sky blue pills known on the street as “Mexican oxy.”

Drug Enforcement Administration via AP

By Catalina Gaitán

WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Administration issued its first public safety alert in six years Monday, warning of a nationwide surge in fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription pills.

Seizures of fake pills containing lethal doses of fentanyl increased by 275% between October 2020 and this month in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, the Seattle division of the DEA said in a statement.

In Oregon alone, for example, the DEA seized 95,500 counterfeit pills between October 2019 and September 2020. In the current fiscal year that ends this month, the number of counterfeit pills seized skyrocketed to 340,000, possibly the highest annual yield in state history, said Cam Strahm, assistant special agent in charge of the Portland District Office of the DEA.

“I’ve been here since 2013, which really predates the counterfeit pill epidemic, and I don’t remember our numbers ever being that high,” Strahm said. “And I think our numbers for the state were higher in 2020 than they ever have been before.”

Oregon reported the most deaths ever from fentanyl in 2020, according to statistics maintained by the state medical examiner.

For the first time, the drug eclipsed heroin as the second leading cause of overdose deaths in Oregon, according to an analysis by Dr. Sean Hurst, the state’s chief medical examiner.

Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid used to treat severe pain, was the primary driver of a spike in drug overdose deaths in the U.S. last year, the statement said. The number of deadly overdoses in the U.S. jumped to 93,000 in 2020 — up from 70,630 in 2019 — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in the statement.

Lab analyses by the DEA showed two of every five fake pills containing fentanyl contained a potentially lethal dose of the drug. A lethal dose of fentanyl is 2 milligrams, which is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil, Milgram said. The DEA did not say when these lab analyses occurred.

Portland police did not have the numbers of counterfeit pill seizures or overdose deaths in the city available Monday, but are working on producing those records, said police spokesperson Nathan Sheppard.

The vast majority of the counterfeit pills are manufactured in Mexico using chemicals supplied from China, according to the DEA. The pills are made to look like real prescription opioid medications, such as oxycodone and amphetamines, and are often sold on social media and e-commerce platforms, the statement said.

The public safety alert warns against buying and taking any pills sold outside of licensed pharmacies, which are illegal and potentially lethal.

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