SAN DIEGO — Federal drug officials are warning that the country is being flooded with lethal counterfeit pills — many containing fentanyl and methamphetamine — which is leading to a surge in overdose deaths.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials say the nation is facing an "unprecedented crisis of overdose deaths" — more than 93,000 last year — that are being fueled by illicit fentanyl and methamphetamine.
"Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before," DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement released earlier this week. "DEA is focusing resources on taking down the violent drug traffickers causing the greatest harm and posing the greatest threat to the safety and health of Americans. Today, we are alerting the public to this danger so that people have the information they need to protect themselves and their children."
So far this year, the DEA has seized more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills in the U.S. — more than it seized over the last two years combined. Two out of every five fake pills analyzed in DEA labs are found to contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.
The local problem is equally dire.
In the past 90 days, 700,000 counterfeit pills were seized in San Diego and Imperial counties. The region serves as a smuggling corridor for the illicit drugs and has a glut of pills, San Diego DEA Special Agent in Charge John Callery said.
"It is impossible to have a fentanyl pill addiction issue and not be able to get it in San Diego," Callery said. "The ability to get your hands on it is uniquely easy in San Diego."
There was a 133 percent increase in fentanyl seizures from 2019 to 2020 in the DEA's San Diego field division area of responsibility — from 787 kilos to 1,834 kilos. That includes drugs seized by all the federal, state and municipal law enforcement agencies in the region.
Overdose deaths in San Diego County have risen significantly in recent years, with unintentional fentanyl-caused deaths jumping from 151 in 2019 to 462 in 2020.
In addition to issuing a public safety alert, the DEA is kicking off an awareness campaign called "One pill can kill."
"The only safe medications are ones that come from licensed and accredited medical professionals," the DEA and Department of Justice fact sheet says. It warns that pills purchased outside of a licensed pharmacy are "illegal, dangerous and potentially lethal."
The campaign will be rolled out to schools, colleges, community groups and others in hopes of getting the word out about the dangers of fake pills, many of which are made to look like prescription opioids such as Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin or Adderall.
The goal, Callery said, is to cut down on the demand for the drugs.
Traditional outreach by the DEA has been difficult, Callery said, because of COVID-19 restrictions at schools and college campuses. "We ask to go and we are told no," he said. "They don't want to put 500 kids in a room."