In its first public safety alert in six years, the Drug Enforcement Administration is warning about a dramatic increase in fake prescription drugs being sold on the black market containing a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.
The DEA said the counterfeit pills — made to look like real opioid medications such as oxycodone, Percocet or Adderall — are sold on the street by dealers or online, including through social media platforms.
"If you have a smartphone and you're sitting on the sofa at home ... your drug dealer is right there in your hands," DEA spokesperson Anne Edgecomb said in an interview with NPR.
The agency said it has seized more than 9.5 million fake pills so far this year, more than the last two years combined. It said its lab has found that two out of every five fake pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose of the drug.
"The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis of overdose deaths fueled by illegally manufactured fentanyl and methamphetamine," DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said. "Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before."
The last time the agency issued such a public safety alert was in 2015 when it warned of a sharp increase on the street of fentanyl-laced heroin.
The latest warning comes amid an ongoing epidemic of drug overdoses in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 93,000 Americans died from a drug overdose last year — more than ever before.
"Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid most commonly found in counterfeit pills, is the primary driver of this alarming increase in overdose deaths," the DEA said.
This alert doesn't only apply to fake opioid medications. DEA officials said a knockoff version of the stimulant Adderall is being sold on the black market laced with methamphetamines.
The alert issued Monday doesn't apply to legally prescribed and dispensed legitimate pharmaceutical medications, the DEA said.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public safety alert today about a wave of deadly counterfeit pain pills being sold on the black market in the U.S. Fake OxyContin, Percocet and other knockoff pills are increasingly contaminated with lethal quantities of fentanyl. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us to talk about this. And Brian, tell us what the DEA is saying about the danger.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, they're really worried, Ari. This is the first time in six years the DEA has raised a red flag like this. They say it's now incredibly deadly when people buy these fake pills. I spoke about this today with the DEA's Anne Edgecomb.
ANNE EDGECOMB: The really alarming part is the percentage of pills that have a lethal dose. We have found that 2 in 5 pills has a lethal dose.
MANN: And the DEA says young people who might be experimenting with these pills, they're the most vulnerable because they haven't built up any tolerance to these opioids.
SHAPIRO: Where are these fake pills coming from?
MANN: Well, drug cartels in Mexico are the major suppliers of the black market in the U.S. I spoke last year about this with the DEA's Matthew Donahue, who's a top official trying to slow the trafficking. And he said, you know, these tablets look completely authentic. They're hard to tell apart from pharmacy-issued pills, but the dosage of fentanyl is completely unpredictable.
MATTHEW DONAHUE: So it isn't like they're, you know, really, you know, measuring each dosage, the milligrams of fentanyl that goes in each pill. And that's what a concern is for us when high school kids or anybody on the streets wants to self-medicate. And they think they're buying a pill that's coming from a pharmaceutical company, where most likely it's coming from the jungles in Mexico.
MANN: And according to the DEA, Ari, they've seized more than 9 million of these counterfeit pills already this year. That's more than they seized in the last two years combined.
SHAPIRO: But despite all those seizures, these pills are still widely available?
MANN: Yeah, and the DEA is really straightforward about this. They're trying, of course, to stop the flow of these fake pills when possible. But this is a quote from DEA. They say, "they're easy to purchase and widely available." And the number of these knockoffs that contain that fentanyl has risen more than 400% over the last couple of years. One complication is that more and more of these pills are being sold over the internet and on e-commerce sites, which means they're easy to order on any smartphone. One note, Ari - this public safety alert doesn't raise concerns about legitimate medications sold through licensed pharmacies, so officials say those medications are safe if taken according to a prescription.
SHAPIRO: Put this into context for us with the wider overdose crisis.
MANN: Well, it continues to really spiral dangerously. Ninety-three thousand people died from overdoses last year - a painful new record. And the numbers just keep rising. We're on track to top 100,000 fatal overdoses this year. Fentanyl is a big part of that, but federal officials are also really worried about a spike in methamphetamine use. The DEA said today they're also seeing methamphetamines mixed into these fake pills, especially ones designed to look like the stimulant Adderall.
SHAPIRO: Does the Biden administration have any solutions here, ways to counter this?
MANN: Yeah, the White House is urging Congress to allocate more than $10 billion for drug treatment and health care programs to help people struggling with addiction. But efforts to stop these drug cartels from operating inside Mexico have largely unraveled over the last couple of years. And that makes it almost impossible to stop these fake pills from coming into the U.S. So what the DEA is basically saying today, Ari, is pretty much a simple message of buyer beware. And unfortunately for many people struggling with substance use disorder involving opioids and methamphetamines, those kinds of warnings just haven't been very effective.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann.
MANN: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.