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Inside the DEA's battle against fake prescription pills

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Posted at 5:47 PM, Feb 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-02 15:09:20-05

CLEVELAND — Inside the Drug Enforcement Administration lab in the heart of Chicago, “It’s very, very busy,” said Melanie Domagala, DEA Laboratory Director.

News 5 went inside for an exclusive look inside the lab.

“We do a lot of work here,” said Domagala.

Chemists inside this lab have discovered a troubling trend that according to the DEA is increasing at an alarming rate.

“Ohio, Northeast Ohio is ground zero for this,” said Brian McNeal, Public Information Officer DEA Detroit Division.

The number of fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid is rapidly rising. “They think they’re buying an oxycodone or a hydrocodone that’s been stolen from a local pharmacy but in fact they’re getting a pill that was manufactured in a clandestine lab in Mexico that has none of the ingredients they think it has,” added McNeal.

That’s exactly what happened to Jessica Sowell. She thought she knew what she was getting when she bought pills off the street.

“I thought I was purchasing Xanax, I was not I was purchasing a compound of some sort,” Sowell said.

It wasn’t until she was indicted on drug charges and read the indictment that she saw the drugs listed. Sowell said she had no idea that the pill she thought was Xanax had cocaine, fentanyl and a mixture of other drugs in it.

“When I detoxed this last time from pills that I thought was Xanax that were something they were not, I had a seizure, I was seeing shadows, I felt like I died. It was the most horrific experience of my life,” she said.

With the help of Stella Maris, a treatment center for substance and alcohol abuse in Cleveland, Sowell has been on the road to recovery for more than five months. Now, she’s telling her story to help others. The DEA is telling Americans one pill can kill.

“If you look at the population of Ohio, there’s 11 million people. We seized 19 million deadly dosages in Ohio and Michigan,” McNeal said.

According to the DEA, in 2021 more than 107,000 people died from overdoses. 66% of those overdoses were caused by fentanyl.

“It’s so potent at such a low level it’s just a different threat than what we’ve seen before,” said Leah Law, DEA supervisory forensic chemist.

Recently, chemists have found a sharp increase in the number of fentanyl laced fake prescription pills last year. The pills are disguised to look like legitimate prescription pills including oxycodone, Xanax, even Adderall.

According to the DEA, the majority of chemical ingredients used to make the illicit pills are shipped from China to Mexico where drug cartels press the pills and smuggle the drugs across the border and into the United States to be sold illegally to Americans.

Last year, according to the DEA, six out of every 10 pills analyzed by DEA chemists were laced with a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl, it was from four out of ten in 2021.

Louis Chaves is one of the chemists who analyze the drugs confiscated by agents. He warns there is no quality control with the illicit pills.

“Dosages vary between them, the contents of what are in the pills vary. In addition to fentanyl there’s a slew of other compounds that could be mixed in the pills. The unknown of what’s in them is one of the big dangers of any of these tablets,” he said.

DEA launched their One Pill Can Kill Campaign to educate Americans about the dangers of buying pills anywhere other than a pharmacy and taking a pill that belongs to anyone else because it could just be a concoction to kill.

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