New twist in addiction crisis: Deadly painkiller impostors

February 29, 2016 by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Authorities are sounding the alarm about a new and deadly twist in the country's drug-addiction crisis in the form of a potent painkiller disguised as other medications.

Tennessee officials say they've seen two dozen cases in recent months of marked as the less potent opiates oxycodone or Percocet that turned out to contain fentanyl, a far more powerful drug. One official likened the danger to users playing Russian roulette each time they buy a pill on the street.

In San Francisco, the health department blamed several overdoses last summer on lookalike Xanax containing fentanyl, while Canada has issued warnings about multiple recent cases of lookalike oxycodone pills containing fentanyl.

And in suburban Cleveland, federal agents arrested a man this month after seizing more than 900 fentanyl pills marked like oxycodone tablets.

"These pills are truly a fatal overdose waiting to happen," said Carole Rendon, acting U.S. attorney in Cleveland.

Because fentanyl is cheap to manufacture illicitly, dealers see a chance to make more money by disguising it as oxycodone, which typically can sell for more, she said.

Lookalike pills were likely to blame for some of the county's 19 fentanyl-related overdose deaths that came just in January alone, said Dr. Thomas Gilson, the Cuyahoga County medical examiner.

"People might otherwise say, 'I know I can abuse this much of oxycodone,' and they may be in for a really, really bad surprise when they find out that's fentanyl and not oxycodone," Gilson said.

The drug, typically used for treatment of chronic pain in end-stage cancer patients, is 25 to 40 times more powerful than heroin. Properly prescribed, it's often applied through a skin patch. Fentanyl produced for the illegal street market comes from Mexico, while chemically similar components have been traced to China, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In a second Ohio indictment, federal authorities have charged a man with obtaining fentanyl from China that killed an addict to whom it was sold in Akron.

The DEA says fentanyl-related overdoses killed more than 700 people nationwide between late 2013 and early 2015.

Mimicry of other drugs is one way fentanyl is now being illicitly marketed, the agency said.

"The fact that fentanyl has been found in this form should hopefully make people nervous that do abuse these types of opiate pills, that they could be getting their hands on something even more lethal," said DEA spokesman Rich Isaacson.

China announced in October it would regulate the sale and distribution of 116 chemical compounds used in the production of synthetic drugs, including acetyl-fentanyl.

The problem of lookalike fentanyl comes as the country struggles to contain a drug overdose epidemic that began with illegal use of prescription painkillers and developed into a heroin crisis.

Ohio experienced 502 fentanyl-related deaths in 2014, up from 84 the year before. In all, 2,482 people in Ohio died from accidental overdoses in 2014, an 18 percent increase over the previous year.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses rose again in 2014, driven by surges in deaths from heroin and . Overdose deaths in the U.S. surpassed 47,000—up 7 percent from the previous year.

Heroin deaths also continued to climb, by 28 percent to about 10,500.

Despite these statistics and the danger of lookalike pills, addicts aren't always deterred, said Rendon, the acting U.S. attorney.

"When there is an overdose death, users do tend to flock to that drug dealer, because they think that he or she must have incredibly potent—either heroin or or a combination thereof," she said.

Explore further: Painkillers, heroin drive increase in US overdose deaths

Related Stories

Painkillers, heroin drive increase in US overdose deaths

December 10, 2015
Drug overdoses rose again last year, driven by surges in deaths from heroin and powerful prescription painkillers, according to new federal statistics.

Overdose deaths in US hit record high

December 18, 2015
More people died of drug overdoses last year in the United States than ever before, largely due to disturbing increases in prescription painkillers and heroin use, health authorities said Friday.

Quasi-legal drug 15 times stronger than heroin hides in plain sight

August 18, 2014
Emergency physicians should expect "an upswing in what on the surface appear to be heroin overdoses," but are actually overdoses tied to acetyl fentanyl, an opiate that is mixed into street drugs marketed as heroin. The looming ...

The path from prescription painkillers to addiction

February 26, 2016
Abuse of prescription painkillers has become an epidemic in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even more concerning is that those going through withdrawal may turn to heroin as ...

What you need to know about the fatal drug fentanyl

June 18, 2015
A surge in news stories about the drug fentanyl has led to increased efforts to educate students about the hazards of the drug when used recreationally. Fentanyl, a fast-acting painkiller and sedative, is typically prescribed ...

Recommended for you

Certain teens more likely to get hooked on opioids

March 12, 2018
(HealthDay)—Teenagers with any mental health problem are more prone to painkiller dependence after receiving a prescription opioid, a new study finds.

Prescription opioids fail rigorous new test for chronic pain

March 6, 2018
A yearlong study offers rigorous new evidence against using prescription opioids for chronic pain.

Study suggests failed osteoarthritis drug could help treat opioid addiction

February 27, 2018
A new study from Indiana University suggests that a drug proven safe for use in people may prevent opioid tolerance and physical dependence when used in combination with opioid-based pain medications.

Complex inhalers prevent patients from taking medicine

February 23, 2018
Respiratory disease patients with arthritis could struggle to manage their conditions because their inhalers are too fiddly for them to use, University of Bath research has found.

Opioid abuse leads to heroin use and a hepatitis C epidemic, researcher says

February 22, 2018
Heroin is worse than other drugs because people inject it much sooner, potentially resulting in increased risk of injection-related epidemics such as hepatitis C and HIV, a Keck School of Medicine of USC study shows.

Opioid addiction treatment behind bars reduced post-incarceration overdose deaths in RI

February 14, 2018
A treatment program for opioid addiction launched by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections was associated with a significant drop in post-incarceration drug overdose deaths and contributed to an overall drop in overdose ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.