US Customs and Border Protection is seizing pill presses at a rate 19 times higher than in 2011. That’s the year the synthetic drug fentanyl exploded in the US drug market, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
While the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration deals with a national problem of synthetic fentanyl overdoses, these machines are playing a critical role in getting deadly counterfeit drugs onto American streets.
“To the naked eye, you can’t tell the difference,” said John Martin, special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Francisco division. “If you have counterfeit pills, you can’t make them without pill presses.”
Counterfeit pills marketed as oxycodone or Xanax but made with fentanyl can be deadly. Fentanyl is 25 to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
The painkiller was once found only in pharmacies but is now manufactured in China in synthetic form and widely available on the American black market.
Pill presses — which can easily be bought online — allow someone to take powder and press it into a pill that looks legitimate. “People have died from ingesting what they think is a legitimate painkiller, (really) it’s a counterfeit pill that contains fentanyl,” Martin said.
Across the country, authorities have seen this play out.
The death of pop icon Prince may turn out to be one of the most famous cases of counterfeit pills. Police reportedly found mislabeled pills laced with fentanyl in his home, and the drug was found in his system.