D.E.A. Warns of ‘Alarming’ Increase in Fentanyl-Laced Fake Pills

The Drug Enforcement Administration said it had seized more than 9.5 million counterfeit prescription pills so far this year, more than in the previous two years combined.

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Pointing to an “alarming” increase in fatal overdoses, the Drug Enforcement Administration warned on Monday that a record number of the 9.5 million fake prescription pills it had seized in the United States this year contained lethal amounts of fentanyl.

For the first time in six years, the agency took the step of issuing a public safety alert, this one on the dangers of the fake pills. The agency said many of the pills have also been laced with methamphetamine.

According to the D.E.A., two of every five fake pills that have been seized this year have contained lethal amounts of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, and is cheaper to produce and distribute.

The agency said it had seized more pills so far this year than in the previous two years combined.

“The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis of overdose deaths fueled by illegally manufactured fentanyl and methamphetamine,” Anne Milgram, the agency’s administrator, said in a statement on Monday. “Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in July that more than 93,000 people in the United States died from drug overdoses in 2020, as the nation was starting to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. That figure reflected an increase of more than 29 percent from the previous year, the C.D.C. said.

Drug enforcement officials attributed the uptick in overdose deaths to those involving fentanyl. All it takes, the D.E.A. said, is money and a smartphone to buy the fake pills, which are made to resemble common yet tightly controlled drugs like OxyContin, Xanax or Adderall. In some cases, the officials said, minors have been buying them.

“Today, we are alerting the public to this danger so that people have the information they need to protect themselves and their children,” Ms. Milgram said.

The D.E.A. said that 40 percent of the fake pills that have been seized have contained at least two milligrams of fentanyl, which is enough to cause a fatal overdose and is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.

A vast majority of the counterfeit pills, which are sold on social media and e-commerce platforms, were brought into the United States from Mexico, according to the D.E.A., which also announced on Monday that it was launching a public awareness campaign called One Pill Can Kill. The chemicals used to make them come from China, the agency said.

Ray Donovan, the chief executive officer of the New York division of the D.E.A., urged people to be leery of fake pills.

“As drug cartels continue to push fentanyl into users’ hands, they have developed a profitable and potent dose in the form of a pill,” Mr. Donovan said on Twitter on Monday. “Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, these pills are lethal.”

Federal drug enforcement officials said that anyone filling a prescription at a licensed pharmacy could remain confident that the drugs they were buying were safe.

Republicans seized on the D.E.A.’s warning on Monday and used it to draw attention to the situation along the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Pres. Biden must secure the border & Congress must permanently designate fentanyl as a schedule I drug,” Representative Scott Fitzgerald, Republican of Wisconsin, said on Twitter on Monday. “Lives depend on it.”

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