Oct 12, 2021 - News
Counterfeit pills surge in Tennessee
Prescription pills shown side by side with virtually identical counterfeit lookalikes.
Prescription pills can be virtually identical to counterfeit lookalikes. Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

"A growing and troubling" trend is complicating the fight against the opioid crisis, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch said at a news conference Monday.

  • Rausch teamed up with health officials to warn residents of a surge in counterfeit pills from drug dealers, and many of the pills are laced with lethal doses of fentanyl.

Why it matters: Counterfeit pills are pulling even more people into the opioid epidemic. In many cases, law enforcement officials said, people looking for prescription drugs have no idea until it's too late that they are consuming dangerous amounts of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

  • Rausch showed examples of counterfeit pills designed to look identical to Xanax and oxycodone.
  • "The reality is they're being shipped everywhere," Rausch said. "This is hitting every community."
  • Nashville police Sgt. Mike Hotz told Axios he's seen opioids laced in pills that mimic Adderall.

Driving the news: Hotz, who leads a unit that almost exclusively investigates overdose deaths, said a "marked increase" in counterfeit pills in Nashville had exacerbated the opioid crisis' already staggering toll.

  • "It's overwhelming," Hotz says. "There are so many families that are getting torn apart by this, and it's just not slowing down or getting better."
  • This year, the DEA said it and partner agencies seized more than 9 million counterfeit pills. More than 7 million of those pills contained fentanyl, which drug suppliers may turn to because it's relatively inexpensive and potent.

By the numbers: Tennessee logged 3,032 overdose deaths in 2020, according to Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.

  • That's an increase of 45% over 2019, largely driven by opioids.
  • So far this year, the Metro Public Health Department has sent out seven alerts warning of overdose spikes in Nashville. At least one of them was explicitly tied to counterfeit pills.

What they're saying: "I don't think people understand just how powerful this is," Trevor Henderson, the director of Nashville's Overdose Response Program, tells Axios.

  • "In a sense we have weapons of mass destruction just sitting in one house, in a neighborhood, near you."

Get help: The Community Overdose Response Team can connect people to treatment resources at 615-687-1701. Resources are also available online.

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