A flood of counterfeit prescription pills has added to record levels of drug overdose deaths in the U.S.. according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said the number of deaths from fake pills, principally sold as opioid painkillers or the tranquillizer Xanax, more than doubled between mid-2019 and the end of 2021, and tripled in western states such as Alaska, Utah and New Mexico, the Guardian reports. More than 90% of the counterfeit drugs contained the extremely powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has driven U.S. overdose deaths to more than 100,000 a year. Other fake pills contained illicit benzodiazepines, which are used in the Xanax, or a combination of the two. Fentanyl is frequently laced into heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine to boost their power and value without the user knowing. But because as little as 2 milligrams of the drug can kill a person, it is easy to overdose.
Many who buy counterfeit pills were seeking legitimate prescription drugs in an effort to avoid fentanyl, which claims nearly 200 lives a day. The CDC said that fake prescription pills accounted for nearly 5% of deaths over the period studied, although that rose to nearly 15% in the western US. The agency said demand for fake opioid painkillers was highest in the west, while half of deaths in the south were from counterfeit versions of the Xanax. The CDC noted that those who died from fake pills “more often were younger, Hispanic, and had prescription drug misuse history” compared with those killed by overdoses in other circumstances.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warns that six out of 10 counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose of the drug. The agency, which is running a One Pill Can Kill campaign to highlight the dangers of buying drugs on the black market, said that seizures of the fake tablets have escalated from 20 million in 2021 to 46 million so far this year. “These pills are largely made by two Mexican drug cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco (CJNG) Cartel, to look identical to real prescription medications, including OxyContin, Percocet, and Xanax, and they are often deadly,” the DEA says.