Fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills prompt DEA warning

The Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, issued a Public Safety Alert Monday warning Americans about fake prescription pills that contain fentanyl and methamphetamine, following an alarming rise in deaths across the country and in Los Angeles.

The chemicals for the drugs are made in China and India and then sent to Mexico for production by criminal drug networks and they're marketed as legitimate prescription pills.  

"These pills are crossing the border. They're coming up here to the LA area. LA is unfortunately a trans-shipment center for drugs. The drugs get warehoused here, and then they get sent out all across the United States. We're [Los Angeles] always going to be on the front line of trending drug issues. In Mexico, these drugs are made in filthy clandestine laboratories. It's certainly not anything even remotely close to what we have in the legitimate pharmaceutical industry here in the United States," said Bill Bodner, the Special Agent in charge for the Los Angeles DEA.

Bodner said the problem has gotten worse over the years. 

"The problem with counterfeit prescription drugs has been getting progressively worse for the past two years, and it's gotten to the point where we really felt we had to call on the public to get involved. More than any drug threat I've seen in my 30 years, this is one where I think public awareness and educating the public can go a long way towards addressing the problem and saving lives. 

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Bodner said the drug dealers are using "deception" as they sell pills to people. 

"People think it's Oxycodone. They think it's Percocet. They think it's Xanax, and in reality, there's no pharmaceutical ingredients in these drugs. It's actually just fentanyl," said Bodner. 

Bodner said it is "nearly impossible" to tell the counterfeit pills apart from the legitimate pharmaceutical pills. 

"The stampings, the color, the size, everything is almost identical. You really can't tell the difference nowadays. What I tell people, the advice I give people is unless you've picked up those pills from a pharmacy, the assumption should be they're fake pills and they contain fentanyl. If you're buying them on a street, they're fake and they contain fentanyl. If you're buying them online, they're fake and they contain fentanyl, and even if you're getting them from a friend, you have to assume they're fake and they contain fentanyl. The only drugs you can really trust now with prescription drugs are those that you get directly from a pharmacy," he said.

It's an issue in Los Angeles and nationwide as well. 

"There's trickery involved. There's deception involved. There's greed involved. This is drug dealers preying on the drug market in this country, selling fentanyl as if it were a prescription drug and unfortunately the young people that are buying them, they don't have the experience taking that powerful of a synthetic opioid and it's sometimes killing them with just one pill," said Bodner.

Bodner talked about the data from Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, showing an alarming increase in drug-related deaths.

"In 2020, there were 3,700 drug-caused deaths in the tri-county area and that's just looking at LA County, Orange County and Riverside County, and to give you an idea, about 50 percent of those drug caused deaths were caused by fentanyl. This year unfortunately I think the number of drug caused deaths will actually increase a little bit and I expect the number of deaths caused by fentanyl to be closer to two thirds or even three quarters so it's something that's not going away and that's why we've taken this kind of unusual step today [Monday] to put this alert out to the public just to say beware, spread the word and more than anything else, protect our children," said Bodner.

Bodner said it's important the deaths are not classified as "drug overdoses."

"In many cases, it's not really a drug overdose, it's more of a drug caused death, or drug homicide because when you say the word overdose, it kind of intimates that the person knew the drug they were taking, knew they were taking fentanyl, maybe they just miscalculated the dose, hence overdose,  but this is not that case,"  he said.

Matt Capelouto lost his 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra, to a drug-related death two days before Christmas in 2019.

"My daughter purchased what she thought was Oxycodone. Half of a pill killed her," he said.

Capelouto said the public safety alert issued by the DEA is essential but also said it was "long overdue." 

"Many of us parents who lost kids to this have been screaming at the top of our lungs for a very, very long time. It's nothing new for us. Our kids have been under attack for quite some time with this fentanyl. It's not an accident. It's homicide," he said.

Capelouto has been focused on changing California laws and helped create legislation, Senate Bill 350. The bill did not pass, but he is hoping it will be reintroduced soon.

"Our laws here in California make it very challenging to hold drug dealers responsible for murder but we're looking to change that. Every time I hear of a new death which is almost daily at this point, I look at that death as a policy failure," he said.

He described what the bill aimed to do. 

"If somebody is arrested for dealing or distributing drugs, they're gonna get an admonishment and basically that admonishment warns them that dealing drugs today is harmful to human life and if they still deal, they can, we still have prosecutors discretion so they can be charged with murder. That admonishment would be kept on file, and hopefully a lot of these dealers stop dealing drugs," he said.

He added that if the dealer continued selling drugs following the admonishment, officials would be able to prove implied malice and charge the dealer with murder in the case of a drug-related death.  

"It's all about saving lives now. I've come to the realization my daughter's not coming back but I know I'm going to see her again and if I sat back and did nothing, she'd be pretty disappointed in me," he said. 

These counterfeit pills have been seized by DEA in every U.S. state in unprecedented quantities. More than 9.5 million counterfeit pills were seized so far this year, which is more than the last two years combined. DEA laboratory testing reveals a dramatic rise in the number of counterfeit pills containing at least two milligrams of fentanyl, which is considered a lethal dose. A deadly dose of fentanyl is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.  

The DEA has created an email address for anyone who knows someone who died from a drug related death and wants it investigated by authorities. The email address is LAFD-DrugCausedDeaths@dea.gov.