Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents from the Minneapolis/St. Paul District Office are reporting a significant increase in counterfeit pills entering Minnesota from drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in California, Arizona and Mexico.
In Minnesota, agents have recovered approximately 46,000 counterfeit pills during the first seven months of 2020, nearly four times the amount seized in all of 2019. Agents note that the counterfeit pill trend took off in Minnesota in 2018, with pill numbers increasing each year.
Counterfeit pain pills and sedatives are flooding the illegal drug market and causing a significant number of fatal overdose deaths.
These dangerous substances contain fentanyl, a powerful opioid 100 times more potent than morphine. Supplied by Mexican drug cartels, or coming directly from China, these pills look identical to legitimate medications such as hydrocodone, Xanax or other medications often prescribed for pain or anxiety.
Based on a sampling of tablets seized nationwide in 2019, DEA found that 27 percent contained potentially lethal doses of fentanyl.
“There is no quality control in these counterfeit pills,” Omaha Division Special Agent in Charge Richard Salter Jr., said. “Drug trafficking organizations do not employ scientists or use professional laboratories to create these deadly pills and therefore they cannot create the safe chemical mixtures that their legitimate pharmaceutical counterparts do. A lethal dosage of fentanyl is two milligrams, equivalent in size to a few grains of salt, as compared to a lethal dose of heroin at 30 milligrams. Each time someone takes a counterfeit pain pill, they are playing Russian roulette with their life.”
Minnesota’s counterfeit pills are primarily sourced from Mexico, with traffickers bringing loads across the Southwest Border into Arizona and California before making their way to Minneapolis. Counterfeit pills have been hidden among coffee beans and candy in an attempt to camouflage the product in transport and have been smuggled underneath cars in strong magnetic boxes.
Additionally, agents are seeing more counterfeit pills being shipped through mail services, with Minneapolis investigators recently seizing a 4,000 count pill load with assistance from the United States Postal Inspection Service.
“If a doctor didn’t prescribe it, or if the pill isn’t coming from a pharmacy, it’s very likely counterfeit,” Salter said. “Mexican cartels are purchasing fentanyl and its analogs and setting up huge operations to manufacture these dangerous products.”
The most common counterfeit pill found in Minnesota is an illicit substitute for oxycodone, known as M30’s for its markings. It is important to note that there is no concern of counterfeit pills entering the legitimate prescription supply chain.
Counterfeit pills are sold on the black market, either on the street by drug dealers or on the dark web.
As with other illicit drugs, agents have tied counterfeit pills back to gangs and violent crimes.
“We have documented events where opposing gangs are fighting for drug distribution territory,” Salter said. “As a result, gang members have been either shot or killed. The drug business and violence go hand-in-hand.”
The prices of counterfeit pills vary, with distributors in Arizona and California, selling a single pill for $4. In Minnesota, the same pill can sell for upwards of $30, or $1 per milligram. Agents have reported seeing prices as high as $100 a pill on Native Reservations.
“Please educate your high school and college-age kids on the extreme dangers of counterfeit medications,” Salter said. “Too often, the overdose victims are young and are not prior drug abusers. They went to a party and someone offered them a pill to relax them – then they died. Too many American parents have had to bury their children as a result of drug overdose.”
Minnesota is one of five states in the DEA Omaha Division including Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
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DEA.gov (August 2020) DEA Reports Significant Increase in Counterfeit Pills in Minnesota