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13News Exclusive: DEA warns of an influx of fatal counterfeit pills

An agent of the DEA in Indianapolis says the amount of counterfeit pills on the streets is on the rise.

INDIANAPOLIS — At an undisclosed Chicago location, there is a Drug Enforcement Agency laboratory where forensic chemists test and analyze illicit drugs seized across the Midwest.  

“We test methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl,” said Brianna McCarthy, a DEA senior forensic chemist.

Michael Gannon, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA in Indianapolis, said the amount of counterfeit pills on the streets is on the rise. Traffickers are still selling meth, cocaine, heroin and other illicit drugs, and along with those drugs they’re starting to sell more and more counterfeit pills. 

“There are thousands and thousands of pills coming in each day,” said McCarthy. 

It would be a potentially fatal mistake for someone suffering from substance abuse disorder, or a person purchasing a pill to think that counterfeit pills were safer than heroin or meth.  

“Occasionally, there is a seizure that is illicit pharmaceutical preparation of oxycodone,” said McCarthy. But “the most frequent counterfeit tablet that we see is one that’s meant to look like an illicit pharmaceutical preparation of an oxycodone tablet. There’s absolutely no oxycodone present in these tablets.” 

But Gannon said these counterfeit tablets aren’t made in a pharmaceutical lab. Most of them are made in Chinese and Mexican drug trafficking rings. 

“The predominate substance is just the fentanyl,” said McCarthy. 

Fentanyl is powerful narcotic used for severe pain. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The DEA said the average amount of fentanyl found in counterfeit pills coming through the lab is around 1.8 milligrams. Two milligrams has the potential of being a lethal dose for some individuals, according to both Gannon and McCarthy.  

Credit: DEA

Gannon said that drug trafficking gangs, primarily from China and Mexico, are illegally producing fentanyl and putting it in the drugs they’re selling because it’s cheaper and more potent.  

“One out of every four pills seized had a fatal dosage of fentanyl in that pill,” said Gannon. 

While in the DEA Lab, 13News’ Sarah Jones witnessed a chemist remove a small cardboard box out of a red, glittery party bag. The chemist then cut open the cardboard box and placed it carefully into a large plastic bag. The chemist then weighed the contents. It was one kilogram.

The chemist then tested a small amount to see if its presence would turn the reagent orange. If it did, then the substance was most like fentanyl, but further testing would still be necessary for a definitive answer. 13News was there as all signs of the initial testing pointed to the kilo of white powder being fentanyl. 

“If you can put that into perspective, that’s 500,000 potential(ly) fatal dosage units that are off the street,” said Gannon. 

500,000 potentially fatal dosage units was in the one suspected kilo of fentanyl. But Gannon told 13News that the DEA in Indianapolis recently seized 14 kilos of a powder that was confirmed to be fentanyl.  

Credit: DEA

“That would be enough for seven million people,” said Gannon. 

“You’re looking at seven times the population in Indianapolis that could have been fatal dosage units in that area,” he added. 

Oxycodone isn't the only counterfeit drug being produced by traffickers.

McCarthy said she’s seen counterfeit Xanax and Adderall as well. McCarthy said the majority of the time neither the Xanax or the Adderall counterfeit pills contain Xanax or Adderall. 

“There’s no quality care or control of what’s in a pill,” said Gannon. “You’re risking your life taking these pills (off the street or from a friend) because you don’t know what’s in ‘em,” said Gannon.  

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