First Responders

Fueled by Chinese Chemicals, Mexican Knockoff Narcotics Threaten US Communities

October 1, 2021Joshua Skovlund
counterfeit pills

Counterfeit pills are deadlier than ever before, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Photos courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration and Michael Förtsch/Unsplash. Composite by Joshua Skovlund/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration issued a rare public health warning Monday, Sept. 27, designed to help curb the skyrocketing number of drug overdose deaths nationwide. The DEA wants Americans to be aware of a record and rising flood of cheap and potentially lethal fentanyl and methamphetamine pills manufactured in Mexican drug labs increasingly from bulk Chinese chemicals

Agents point to the 9.5 million counterfeit pills seized this year by law enforcement nationwide, a staggering 430% increase since 2019. Opioids, such as fentanyl, caused 73% of overdose deaths nationwide last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. 

Overall, 93,331 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2020, a 29% jump from the previous year.

“The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis of overdose deaths fueled by illegally manufactured fentanyl and methamphetamine,” Anne Milgram, administrator of the DEA, said in a written statement accompanying the warning. “Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before. In fact, DEA lab analyses reveal that two out of every five fake pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose.”

counterfeit pills fentanyl
The chemicals used to produce fentanyl cross the Pacific Ocean, eventually arriving in the US heartland through smugglers. This image is part of a DEA Intelligence report released in early 2020. Image courtesy of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

One of the hardest-hit communities is Oregon’s Washington County, home to corporate giants Nike and Intel and more than 600,000 residents.

Last year, the Westside Interagency Narcotics Team seized 14,000 counterfeit pills. 

By the end of July this year, the task force made up of local, state, and federal law enforcement had nabbed more than 33,000 knockoffs. That was a 74% increase from the previous year, with five more months to go.

“The amount that we have seen just by our drug team, the amount of overdose deaths that they have investigated, has gone through the roof,” task force spokesperson Sgt. Danny DiPietro told Coffee or Die Magazine.

DiPietro counted 17 overdose deaths investigated by his team through July, with 13 cases believed linked to fentanyl. 

DiPietro said he’d worked as a narcotics K9 handler for nine years before taking his present post on the task force. Back then, officers could trace most fentanyl on the street back to pharmacy robberies.

But now, cheap counterfeit pills have washed over the underworld market, replacing the supply of stolen prescription drugs.

“Fentanyl is cheap,” DiPietro said. “Cheap, cheap, very cheap, and it takes such a small quantity of fentanyl to get high.

“It’s a synthetic opioid. It can be manufactured outside the country. It can be manufactured within the country in a small lab, and the fact [is] that so little is needed to get high, or to be used for one pill, and it’s so cheap.”

The DEA’s new public health campaign — dubbed One Pill Can Kill— joins a similar initiative DiPietro’s task force and the Beaverton School District already have underway.

Fake and Fatal” features a four-week course that drug abuse experts and addiction survivors teach to students. 

They warn pupils that the fentanyl and meth knockoffs are milled to resemble brand-name prescription pills such as OxyContin and Adderall, but they’re not those drugs. They’re more lethal.

“It came into our communities almost overnight. It’s scary because people still don’t know what fentanyl is,” DiPietro said. “Or if they do know what it is, they think of it in the medical professional kind of standing, not as a drug that people are intentionally taking or because they think it’s something else.”

Despite the best efforts of DiPietro’s task force and other law enforcement initiatives nationwide, the problem seems to be growing worse.

On Thursday, Sept. 30, the DEA released new figures detailing what the agency called a “two-month law enforcement surge” targeting the knockoff pills. DEA agents alone confiscated 712 kilograms of fentanyl powder — enough uncut narcotic to make tens of millions of potentially lethal pills.

Agents also seized 158 weapons tied to fentanyl rings, plus 4,011 kilograms of meth and 653 kilograms of cocaine.

Read Next: The DEA Makes the Largest Meth Bust in Its History

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis that followed the death of George Floyd. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he earned his CrossFit Level 1 certificate and worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. He went on to work in paramedicine for more than five years, much of that time in the North Minneapolis area, before transitioning to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion, where he publishes poetry focused on his life experiences.

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