WASHINGTON - The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued its first public alert in six years warning about a surge in fake prescription pills on the market containing fentanyl and methamphetamine, which is killing Americans at an "unprecedented rate."
The agency on Monday reported the "significant nationwide surge in counterfeit pills," saying the fake medication is being mass-produced by criminal drug networks in labs and made to look like legitimate prescription pills such as Percocet, Xanax and Adderall.
The DEA said the fake pills are "killing unsuspecting Americans at an unprecedented rate," noting that two out of every five fake pills with fentanyl contains a potentially lethal dose, an assessment based on DEA lab analyses of seized drugs. At least two milligrams of fentanyl is considered a lethal dose, which is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.
The counterfeit pills have been seized by the DEA in every U.S. state in unprecedented quantities, the agency said. More than 9.5 million counterfeit pills have been seized so far in 2021, which is more than the last two years combined.
"The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis of overdose deaths fueled by illegally manufactured fentanyl and methamphetamine," DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement. "Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before."
FILE - A bag of assorted pills and prescription drugs dropped off for disposal is displayed during the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) 20th National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day at Watts Healthcare on April 24, 2021, in Los Angeles, Californ
The agency said the vast majority of counterfeit pills brought into the U.S. are produced in Mexico, and China is supplying chemicals for the manufacturing of fentanyl in Mexico.
The counterfeit pills are made to look like real prescription opioid medications such as Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, and Xanax — or even stimulants like Adderall and other amphetamines, the DEA said. The agency noted that the legitimate prescription supply chain is not impacted, and the warning does not apply to medications prescribed by medical professionals and dispensed by licensed pharmacists.
"Fake prescription pills are widely accessible and often sold on social media and e-commerce platforms – making them available to anyone with a smartphone, including minors," the agency said in the statement.
The DEA’s warning comes amid a drug overdose crisis in the United States with death rates currently reaching the highest level in history. More than 93,000 people died of a drug overdose in the U.S. in 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"In Philadelphia County alone, there were 1,214 overdose deaths in 2020; fentanyl was identified in 81% percent of these deaths," Thomas Hodnett, acting special agent in charge of the DEA Philadelphia field division, said in the statement. "It is our hope that this public safety alert will raise awareness about the threat that these pills pose in our region and across the nation at large."
Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid most commonly found in counterfeit pills, has been the primary driver of the alarming increase in overdose deaths, the DEA said. Drug poisonings involving methamphetamine, increasingly found to be pressed into counterfeit pills, also continue to rise, according to the agency.
Drug trafficking is also linked to violence, the agency said. It has seized more than 2,700 firearms in connection with drug trafficking investigations so far in 2021, a 30% increase since 2019.
This story was reported from Cincinnati.