With overdose deaths soaring, DEA issues warning about fentanyl-laced pills

The Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public warning Monday that a growing number of pain medications bought on the black market are laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl or the stimulant methamphetamine, driving overdose deaths to record levels.

“We decided to do this because the amounts are staggering,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We are in the midst, in my view, of an overdose crisis, and the counterfeit pills are driving so much of it.”

The United States saw a record number of drug overdose deaths last year — more than 93,000, which marked an increase of almost 30 percent from 2019.

Story continues below advertisement

Officials said the DEA hasn’t issued such a public safety alert since 2015, when the agency warned that agents were seeing an alarming amount of heroin laced with fentanyl. Fentanyl, even in much smaller amounts, is deadlier than street heroin.

The new public safety alert warns Americans that counterfeit pills, often sold on social media or e-commerce websites, increasingly contain fentanyl or sometimes methamphetamine, posing health risks beyond the dangers of buying prescription pills.

The DEA has seized 9.6 million counterfeit pills already this budget year, which is more than it seized in the previous two years combined, officials said. The number of seized counterfeit pills found to contain fentanyl has jumped 430 percent since 2019.

Story continues below advertisement

The United States has been grappling with a worsening drug epidemic since 1999, fueled primarily by an explosion of opioid use. At first, that drug abuse centered around prescription pain pills, such as Oxycodone, Vicodin or Percocet.

In recent years, the death toll has risen sharply, fueled in large part by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is relatively cheap to manufacture and distribute. Last year, drug overdoses killed more than twice as many Americans as car crashes.

Milgram said the illicit drug trade in America is increasingly shifting from plant-based products like cocaine or heroin to chemical-driven manufacturing.

“There’s no question in my mind right now there are chemicals largely coming from China to Mexico, where the cartels are mass-producing fentanyl and meth and now increasingly seeing them pressed into pills,” she said. Often, those pills are sold online as Oxycodone, Percocet or Adderall, but in truth the pills contain fentanyl or methamphetamine, she said.

It’s not just that the drugs being consumed are changing and killing more Americans. The way Americans buy illicit drugs has also changed.

Story continues below advertisement

“The drug dealer isn’t just standing on a street corner anymore,” Milgram said. “It’s sitting in a pocket on your phone.” She added that many of the counterfeit pills that alarm the agency are being sold on sites such as Snapchat and TikTok.

“Social media is not doing enough to deal with this,” she said, while emphasizing that the first priority is warning the public. “We have not gone to them yet with specific demands, but we will at some point go to them.”