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Pressed: Counterfeit Pills Causing Overdoses Around the U.S.

The iconic performer Prince passed away in April of 2016 after taking a counterfeit Vicodin pill, pressed with the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Seeing as today would have been Prince’s 60th birthday, we thought we would bring attention to the dangers of counterfeit pills— just like the pills that claimed Prince’s life and many others.


Prince’s autopsy showed large amounts of fentanyl— a synthetic opioid that is 100 more powerful than morphine. It turns out, the Vicodin painkillers Prince was taking, were actually counterfeit. These Vicodin pills were pressed using a pill press and the lethal synthetic drug fentanyl. A two year long investigation ensued, following the abrupt overdose death of Prince. It was found that Prince was prescribed by a doctor to Oxycodone, but Prince’s doctor wrote the prescription in the name of Prince’s close friend and bodyguard, Kirk Johnson— to protect Prince’s privacy. It seems that this prescription probably fed into a dependence to prescription painkillers, which led to Prince seeking more of the drug from outside sources.
Before his death, it was noted that Prince was struggling from a severe addiction to prescription opioids. Once law enforcement searched his residence during the investigation surrounding his accidental overdose death, law enforcement found pills stashed all around the house. Prince was spiraling downward prior to his death, caught in a cycle of withdrawal and use. Prince’s team was trying to get him help, especially after the singer overdosed on a plane— which had to make an emergency landing to revive him with multiple doses of Narcan (an opioid reversal). This plane overdose incident happened only six days before Prince would be found dead in an elevator of his complex Paisley Park in Minnesota (Associated Press). Among the people who discovered his body, was the son of California addiction specialist Dr. Kornfeld— who brought buprenorphine, a medication used to help overcome withdrawal and opioid addiction. Dr. Kornfeld’s son was too late.
As his addiction grew, waking up in pain from withdrawal daily, Prince began buying prescription pills off the street. Instead of buying what he believed to be Vicodin, Prince was given counterfeit Vicodin pills— pills containing fentanyl, pressed into a pill that was virtually identical to the prescription pill that Prince was used to. Of course, the pill was not Vicodin at all, but it was a Vicodin replica, containing one of the most potent and deadly synthetic drugs. This pill-pressing practice has been hitting communities across the United States, claiming lives from cities to rural towns, and everywhere in between.

Pill Pressing

Substance abusers and addicts tend to be very trusting of any type of prescription pill, as they see the drug as being consistent and regulated, they know the effect, they know how much they have to take to get that effect, they know how long the effect will last— these expectations are shattered by counterfeit pills. “The ingredients and potency are all unknown, and minuscule amounts of fentanyl can cause overdose or death. Consuming a counterfeit pill is akin to playing Russian Roulette” (Mulvey). Common prescription pills being pressed include: Percocet, Vicodin, Opana, Xanax, and Adderall.
A pill press is a portable machine that is used to create pills. Pill press machines are also called tableting machines, encapsulating machines, or capsule filling machines. Basically, you can use a pill press with a specific mold to form a mixture into pills that resemble any pill you would like— the mold is responsible for getting the shape and markings down to reflect each detail. Pill press machines can be the size of a desktop, or industrial size— which can produce over a million pills each hour. “For less than $500, an individual with ill intent can purchase a pill press and a counterfeit pill mold that allows them to turn cheap, readily available, unregulated ingredients into a six-figure profit. Criminals rely upon these pill presses to create dangerous counterfeit medications with toxic substances such as cheaply imported fentanyl” (NABP).
Pill presses are relatively accessible and becoming scarily popular in the U.S.; ” Data from Customs and Border Protection shows pill press seizures at International Mail Facilities are increasing every year, growing 19 fold from 2011 to 2017″ (NABP). The volume of damage that a single pill-press machine can cause is massive, some small and portable pill pressing machines can produce thousands of counterfeit pills per hour. It only takes one extra milligram of the potent synthetic fentanyl to cause death.

Fentanyl-Laced Counterfeit Pills

Just in one drug bust by the New York Port Authority, DEA agents seized 20,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills. These pressed pills were made to look like the prescription pill Percocet, but instead contained fentanyl and other unknown fillers. “Overdose deaths in New York City are at record-high levels and fentanyl is involved in more than half of these fatalities. A customer accustomed to taking oxycodone would not necessarily have the tolerance to be able to ingest fentanyl without suffering an overdose” (Mulvey).
In January of 2019, it was reported that “…counterfeit, fentanyl-laced prescription pills had been found in 46 states— every state except Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas and Nebraska. The number of states reporting associated deaths had risen 71 percent” (“Deadly Fentanyl-Laced…”). These counterfeit pills are everywhere, destroying entire communities with a single batch of fentanyl-laced pills. These counterfeit pills obviously have no quality control, and for users, the substances are believed to be prescription pills from pharmaceutical companies which provide strict regulations for manufacturing. The result is using a substance that is not the substance that was intended to be used, this result is life-threatening.
Fentanyl is an extremely potent synthetic opioid, even the smallest amount could be absolutely lethal. Fentanyl is much cheaper to buy, and when pressed into pills to resemble prescription opioids, can turn an unsettling profit; “Black market 30 mg oxycodone pills can sell on the street for up to $30 each. At that price, the combined total number of pills recovered in these investigations could have carried a street value of up to $600,000” (Mulvey).
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fentanyl is now the drug involved in the most fatal overdoses in the U.S., with fatalities from synthetic opioids including fentanyl jumping more than 45 percent from 2016 to 2017” (Snow).

Final Thoughts

Any drug use is dangerous and potentially lethal. Buying drugs off of the street are especially risky, especially considering the volume of counterfeit pills being sold— paraded around as well-known prescription pills, yet containing one of the most lethal and potent synthetic opioids available. If Prince was sold counterfeit Vicodin, you are probably not safe from the reach of counterfeit pill dealers either. Obviously, the best way to avoid this mess is by getting sober and choosing to create a meaningful life that doesn’t involve drug use of any kind. If you’re ready for a new life, reach out to us.

Reach Out

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, please reach out to us at 877-RECOVERY or (877)-732-6837. Our team makes themselves available to take your call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Associated Press. “Prince Unaware He Was Taking Fake Pain Pills with Fentanyl: Prosecutor.” Page Six, Page Six, 19 Apr. 2018, pagesix.com/2018/04/19/prince-didnt-know-he-was-taking-counterfeit-pain-pills-containing-fentanyl-prosecutor/
“Deadly Fentanyl-Laced Counterfeit Pills Have Spread To 46 States In The Last Two And A Half Years.” Partnership for Safe Medicines, Partnership for Safe Medicines, 20 Feb. 2019, www.safemedicines.org/2019/02/pills-in-46-states.html
Mulvey, Erin. “Dangerous Fentanyl Masked as Counterfeit Oxycodone, 20,000 Pills Seized in the Bronx and Manhattan.” DEA, U.S. Department of Justice, 11 Feb. 2019, www.dea.gov/press-releases/2019/02/11/dangerous-fentanyl-masked-counterfeit-oxycodone-20000-pills-seized-bronx
National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), et al. ILLEGAL PILL PRESSES: AN OVERLOOKED THREAT TO AMERICAN PATIENTS. THE PARTNERSHIP FOR SAFE MEDICINES, Mar. 2019, www.safemedicines.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/IllegalPillPressReport-2019-SECURE.pdf
Snow, Anita. “Deadly Blue ‘Mexican Oxy’ Pills Take Toll on US Southwest.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 15 Feb. 2019, www.apnews.com/d2296529ea94472d9f0d010f7bb99a2d

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