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'1 pill can kill': Officials warn about fake prescription drugs laced with fentanyl

Drug dealers are often overmixing fentanyl into batches of fake pills, creating deadly doses.
/ Source: TODAY

One pill can kill.

That’s the message from the Drug Enforcement Administration this morning, which is announcing a rare public safety alert — the first since 2015 — about the alarming amount of counterfeit pills containing lethal fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) in the U.S.

"They're marketed as prescription drugs, sold online or through social media, but are actually fake, often containing powerful, deadly fentanyl ... Sometimes methamphetamine," said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. Popular apps like Snapchat and TikTok help connect teens and young adults to drug dealers, she added, noting social media companies are not doing enough to stop this problem.

"Social media companies know that their platforms are being used for this. And they need — they need to understand that Americans are dying ... It's happening every single day," Milgram said, calling the issue a "national crisis."

So far this year, the agency and its law enforcement partners have seized 9.5 million such fake pills, with fake tablets containing fentanyl making up the majority of that figure — and the percentage that are potentially deadly has never been higher, said Milgram. Two out of 5 of those fentanyl pills contain deadly doses.

“The only pill any American should be taking is a pill that's been prescribed by their doctor and filled at their legitimate pharmacy."

“It's Russian roulette, but it's even more dangerous in one sense. In Russian roulette, people know that they're passing around a loaded gun. Here, you are talking about many people who think that they are actually buying oxycodone or they're buying Percocet or they're buying Vicodin … a painkiller,” Milgram told TODAY.

“They think they're buying a prescription drug bought in an illegal market. And they're not. They're buying fentanyl or methamphetamine. And the fentanyl pills can kill people.”

It takes a minuscule amount of fentanyl to cause death — the equivalent of two or three grains of salt, she noted. More than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. last year, which Milgram called a national crisis and an emergency.

With this new campaign, the DEA is not talking about medicines prescribed by your doctor and dispensed by your pharmacy.

Rather, it’s targeting counterfeit pills that criminals market to the American public as genuine prescription pills and sell online, Milgram noted. They intentionally make the fake pills look like the real thing — with the same size and color.

Criminal drug networks are exploiting the fact that the U.S. is in the midst of an opioid epidemic and there is an increased demand for prescription painkillers and other drugs.

Americans of every age, race and gender in every part of the U.S. are impacted. These "predatory criminal organizations" use fentanyl because it's cheap, easy to transport and “incredibly addictive and incredibly powerful,” Milgram explained. It’s 80-100 times stronger than morphine.

The chemicals needed to make fentanyl come mostly from China, then shipped to Mexico where it’s mass produced in labs, Milgram said. Drug dealers creating the fake tablets are not chemists, so they're often overmixing fentanyl into batches of pills, creating deadly doses.

Awareness is key, especially for parents who should know there may be a drug dealer lurking on their kids’ phone. It's also important they talk to their children about the dangers of fentanyl.

“We have to all understand that those pills are deadly,” Milgram said. “The only pill any American should be taking is a pill that's been prescribed by their doctor and filled at their legitimate pharmacy. They shouldn't be taking a pill from family, from friends.”

For more resources and information about the campaign, visit the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's site.