This spring, a 17-year-old high school baseball player in the West Valley pitched a save in the playoff semi-finals, sending his team to the state finals. Five days later his dad went into his room and found him dead. The medical examiner attributed his death to a fentanyl overdose.
It is not known where the teenager got the drugs, but it is believed in all likelihood it was a counterfeit opioid laced with the fentanyl.
Doug Hebert calls counterfeit drugs the “elephant in the room” as they relate to the nationwide opioid crisis. Hebert was with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for 27 years and retired as assistant special agent in charge in Arizona. He lives in Fountain Hills and has been active with the Substance Abuse Coalition in the community for eight years.
Hebert said it is very important that people understand where their prescription drugs come from.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 70,000 people died of overdose in 2017. Of those, 49,000 were opioid related, a 14 percent increase over the previous year.
A big contributor to that is the counterfeit drug trade. The drugs are substandard and not manufactured by approved and licensed manufacturers, according to Hebert.
Pharmaceuticals are the number one counterfeit products in the world, creating a $200 billion a year industry.
With Arizona’s proximity to the border with Mexico and a large senior population with prescriptions for pharmaceuticals, it is a prime location for those who deal in counterfeit pills.
People are looking for a less expensive source for their prescriptions than the corner drug store and they are turning to the internet or crossing the border to save money. The truth is it could cost them their life, according to Hebert.
“The purchasers think these [pharmaceuticals] are the real deal, when in truth they are not what they are represented to be,” Hebert said. “They contain the wrong ingredients, no ingredients or the incorrect quantity of ingredients.”
According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy there are 11,000 online pharmacies with many representing themselves as Canadian sources. Approximately 96 percent of those are operating illegally with no real physical presence in Canada except for a PO Box, Hebert said.
About nine years ago the FDA began to see the opioid epidemic as a major problem and the pharmaceutical industry as a bigger threat than cartels. DEA enforcement operations began targeting doctors, pharmacies, pain clinics and drug distributors. Over the years enforcement has had an impact on how pharmaceuticals are legally distributed in the United States. Restrictions and state laws have had a significant impact in Arizona.
However, Hebert noted the unintended consequence of enforcement efforts is opening the market wide for counterfeit drugs.
“The criminal organizations have filled the void with counterfeits laced with fentanyl,” Hebert said.
The FDA wants people to recognize there is a problem with counterfeit drugs and have implemented a “know your source” program encouraging people to know and understand where the drugs they are taking come from.
“See a licensed doctor, and obtain your drugs from a known pharmacy,” Hebert said. “Just be aware that the first time you purchase [counterfeit drugs], may also be your last.”
For more information or to learn more about “know your source” efforts, visit fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou.