Rising Overdose Deaths Caused from Counterfeit or Laced Prescription Opioids

Overdose deaths continue to be on the rise and many of those deaths occur from individuals consuming counterfeit or laced prescription opioids.

Prescription pain relief

Photo by: Frankieleon

Opioid based pain relievers such as Morphine, Oxycodone, and Hydrocodone were created for doctors to help their patients manage severe to chronic pain. Although they can be helpful for pain, they also mimic the euphoric feeling produced by another addictive opioid: heroin. Far too often, patients become addicted to these pharmaceutical opioids and begin obtaining them elsewhere, outside of a doctor’s care.

Opioid crisis

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are, after marijuana (and alcohol), the most commonly abused substances by Americans 14 and older.“ While heroin is extremely dangerous and has definite negative connotations associated with its use, prescription opioid abuse is more common and sadly, often overlooked. Additionally, misusing prescription pain pills can lead to heroin use as well. The NID notes “about 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin and “about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids”.

Rising overdose deaths

Opioid abuse has been declared a crisis throughout Utah and the nation, yet the amount of individuals using and overdosing continues to rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state: “Drug overdose deaths and opioid-involved deaths continue to increase in the United States. The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involve an opioid. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and heroin) quadrupled. From 2000 to 2015 more than half a million people died from drug overdoses. 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.”

Fentanyl

While many overdose deaths occur from a person intentionally misusing or overusing a prescription drugs, other deaths are caused by taking counterfeit pills made to look like authentic pain relievers or pills laced with high amounts of other substances. One commonly used ingredient in laced or counterfeit pills is a synthetic opioid known as fentanyl. Fentanyl is similar to other prescription opioids such as OxyContin and morphine, however the effects of fentanyl are “50 to 100 times more potent” according to the NID. That potency increase comes at a price though. The NID affirms “Among more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2016, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl ( . . . ).”

Laced or phony pills

Sadly, addiction does not allow the danger of fentanyl in prescription drugs to stop individuals from consuming pills bought off the street. Some may think they are doing their due diligence by verifying the pill’s size, color, and imprint on pill checking websites, however many counterfeit prescription drugs on the street look just like original. The only way to know for sure what is contained in a pill is to obtain the medication with a valid prescription. Since that is unlikely to happen for addicts, drug treatment and rehabilitation is encouraged to help those fighting addiction.

Overdose reversal

Loved ones of addicts unable to successfully rehabilitate are encouraged to obtain life saving measures to save their family member or friend should an overdose occur. When a person overdoses on opioids, their respiratory system slows down to a stop which can quickly lead to death. Naloxone, known commercially as Narcan reminds the brain to signal the lungs to breathe. Previously obtainable with a prescription, the nasal spray Narcan is now available over the counter. Walgreens has just announced that nearly 80,000 of their stores across the nation will now be stocked with the lifesaving medication. Until more can be done to prevent mass opioid abuse, at least there are things in place to reduce the lives lost to this dangerous epidemic.

Opioids and Benzos – A Deadly Combination

Opioids and Benzos- two highly addictive drugs that can be obtained illegally or with the help of a physician can be a deadly combination when used together.

Opioids

Photo by: Dennis Yip

Opioids are a type of drug that binds to the opioid receptors in the body, reducing pain while increasing a sense of euphoria. Opioids can come in illegal forms such as heroin or fentanyl or they can be prescribed legally by a doctor. These prescription opioids include the popular:

• OxyContin;
• Morphine;
• Vicodin; and
• Codeine.

Opioids by themselves have caused tens of thousands of overdose deaths last year alone. They are highly addictive, quickly leading to dependency. They who are dependent on opioids commonly misuse them in extreme quantities. Misuse or overuse of opioids can result in respiratory distress and death.

Benzodiazepines (Benzos)

Another “feel good sedative”, Benzodiazepines are “a type of prescription sedative commonly prescribed for anxiety or the help with insomnia“ according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The go on to describe common [benzos] as “Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin.” Just like opioids, benzos can sedate a person too much, decreasing their breathing to dangerous levels. Combined, Opioids and Benzos are too often deadly.

A deadly combination

Photo by: Jason Rogers

On their website, NIH also states “More than 30 percent of overdoses involving opioids also involve benzodiazepines”. With both drugs meant to sedate, it is highly likely that the combined effect of both drugs being used simultaneously can suppress breathing to the point of stopping completely. The respiratory system of users is so relaxed, it forgets to intake oxygen.

Help for those with addictions

Those who know individuals struggling with an opioid addiction, inform them of the dangers of mixing benzos with opioids even under a doctor’s care. Those fighting addiction are encouraged to instead look at “effective medications [that] exist to treat opioid use disorders [such as] methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone.” Loved ones of addicts should consult with a doctor about obtaining the drug naloxone to reverse an overdose should the unthinkable happen when they are present.

Counterfeit Pain Pills More Dangerous Than Originals

Thousands of counterfeit pain pills confiscated during a massive drug bust turned out to be more dangerous that the original prescriptions the bogus pills were imitating.

Distribution of pain pills

Drug bust

Photo by: Bill Brooks

Just a couple days prior to Thanksgiving, a man renting a home in Cottonwood Heights, Utah was arrested for what authorities are calling one of the largest drug busts in Utah’s history. The thousands of pills that 26 year old Aaron Michael Shamo was making and selling daily were being designed to look like popular pain pills such as Percocet and OxyContin, but instead contained an ingredient far more addictive and dangerous than oxycodone – Fentanyl. Detectives believe Shamo had sold and shipped the counterfeit pain pills throughout Utah as well as around the nation over the course of several months. The pain pills containing fentanyl could have reached millions of people over that span of time.

Fentanyl

Fentanyl is referred to as prescription heroin since users feel many of the same effects. The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes fentanyl as “a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.” Due to this high potency, fentanyl is extremely dangerous and carries a greater risk of death. The CDC  stated that the “DEA describes fentanyl as a powerful narcotic associated with an epidemic of opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States.” By taking black market pain pills without knowing the actual ingredients, an increased number of individuals are likely to overdose. Those who are frequent users of pain pills may receive a high from the counterfeit pain pills containing fentanyl. Others who have a lower tolerance to opioids may suffer respiratory distress and die from a single pill.

Utah’s prescription drug problem was bad enough

pain pillsUtah has a major prescription drug problem. According to the Utah Department of Health, “Every month in Utah, 24 individuals die from prescription drug overdoses. Utah ranked 4th in the U.S. for drug poisoning deaths ( . . .)” They also stated that “59% of deaths from prescription pain medications involved oxycodone”. With so many drug overdoses from oxycodone itself, how many more would die when counterfeit pain pills containing fentanyl are taken instead? The sad reality of Utah’s prescription drug problem is most of the residents who abuse prescription drugs got their start with a legal prescription from a doctor. Unable to fight the opioid’s addictive quality, many of those individuals turn to street drugs or street pills. Instead of receiving the help and rehabilitation they need, they may be getting a deadly dose of fentanyl.

Help on the horizon?

For those who have family or friends who are suffering from addiction, there is hope when a loved one takes one dose to many. Not only did Utah pass the Good Samaritan Law, allowing persons to report an overdose of another without fearing their own prosecution, but there are overdose reversing drugs such as Narcan (nalaxone) that can be prescribed to someone who is close to an addict. Narcan can safely reverse an overdose to heroin or opioids and is responsible for saving over 150 lives so far in Utah alone. Unfortunately however, the overdose reversal drugs are no match for high potency fentanyl, such as the as counterfeit pain pills being distributed in high quantities by Aaron Shamo.

Narcan

Photo by: Peretz Partensky

According to the CDC, “Multiple doses of naloxone [Narcon] may be needed to treat a fentanyl overdose because of its high potency.” If the person administering Narcan to a fentanyl overdose patient or loved one is unaware of the need for additional doses to combat the fentanyl, the victim may still die.

Education and treatment

With so many Utah residents suffering from addiction and dependency on pain pills, it is vital that those afflicted receive the help they need through residential drug treatment facilities. These facilities should be accessible to all either by voluntarily checking themselves in or if facing charges such as possession of schedule II drugs, mandatory treatment should be issued instead of jail time (for where little to no rehabilitation is available). To discuss drug charges and options for treatment, contact a criminal defense attorney. For a list of drug rehabilitation centers throughout Utah, contact the Department of Health.