Authored by Elliott Redwine, | Medically Reviewed by Peace Valley Recovery Editorial Staff,
Last Updated: August 18, 2021

The ongoing rise in rates of drug overdoses has officials in Pennsylvania on high alert.

The COVID-19 pandemic had more people turning to substances for relief than in years prior. As a result, preliminary data shows that deaths due to drug overdose skyrocketed at the start of 2020. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed an 18.2 percent increase in the 12-month period ending in May 2020 compared to the previous year. 

The same report connects that sharp increase to the expanding use of fentanyl. Fentanyl, especially illicitly-manufactured supplies, has flooded the drug market over the past 5 years. Overdose deaths involving the substance were 12 times higher in 2019 than they were in 2013, only 6 years earlier.

Some users now seek out fentanyl intentionally, but it didn’t start that way and many still stumble upon it by accident. Those who ingest fentanyl accidentally are a large part of the reason that opioid overdose deaths are skyrocketing year after year. 

When users are expecting a different substance, the potency of fentanyl takes them by surprise. Users ingest more than their body can tolerate and the results are disastrous. Unfortunately, the mistake is one that too often comes with fatal consequences. 

New reports show the existing fentanyl crisis is now becoming even more alarming. Fentanyl pressed into counterfeit pharmaceutical pills These fake prescription pills are flooding through the drug market in Philadelphia. This growing trend is exacerbating an already concerning issue and creating additional problems for experts, officials, and medical professionals alike.

Hydrocodone and Opioid Addiction Statistics in PA

Pressed Fentanyl Pills On the Rise in Philadelphia

Fentanyl first turned up in Philadelphia’s heroin supply a few years ago. Manufacturers and dealers cut it into their drugs to slash costs and hike profits. The result was an alarming rise in deaths due to accidental overdose. People ingested the same amount they were used to but the incredible potency of the fentanyl caused them to overdose.

Today, a few years later, most users are prepared for the presence of fentanyl in their heroin supplies. Some even skip over heroin altogether and seek out fentanyl on purpose. They’re ready and often looking for the stronger high that the drug provides.

Now manufacturers are banking on another way to raise their profits and it’s causing a new wave of accidental overdoses: pressing fentanyl into counterfeit pharmaceutical pills. Though the practice isn’t a recent development, the availability of these pills escalated during the past year within Philadelphia.

“People have been selling fake pills for a while, but not quite to this extent,” explained local Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson Pat Trainor. “We’ve seen counterfeit pills for many years, but the availability has really skyrocketed over the past year. It’s of great concern to us – as if Philadelphia isn’t saturated enough with fentanyl products.”

Up until 2017, no Pennsylvania drug seizures by the DEA resulted in any counterfeit pills. As of 2019, though, these fake pharmaceuticals account for 9 percent of their fentanyl seizures. The significant rise in such a short period is a trend that is likely going to continue. The extent of the issue will become clearer as officials release more data.

opioid overdose rate

Fake Pharmaceuticals Are Claiming Lives

The Medical Examiner’s Office in Philadelphia handles all the bodies of those who lose their lives to drug overdoses. Recently, they’ve noticed the rise in deaths related to these fake pharmaceuticals. Autopsy reports reveal the presence of fentanyl while family members insist their loved one only used prescription drugs.

The body of an overdose victim came through the Medical Examiner’s Office recently, found with a few pills in his pocket. They appeared to be OxyContin, the popular opioid painkiller. Reports showed the presence of fentanyl in his system, though, and the office tested the pills.

They didn’t contain OxyContin, or Vicodin, or any other type of prescription opioid, though; they were fentanyl pills. Manufacturers press fentanyl into fake pharmaceuticals of all kinds. These counterfeit pills look like the real thing, as though they came straight out of a pharmacy, but are made from fentanyl or other illicit drugs. Pills that appear to be Percocet or Valium or Xanax cost little to make and create a large profit for dealers.

Some users seek out pills because they seem like a less risky alternative to drugs like heroin. They believe pills should be a safer substance than powdered heroin but the new trend is proving that assumption false. Users with lower tolerances turn to these drugs but are more and more frequently met with these counterfeit pills. They believe they know what they’re getting but the numbers show that’s not the case.

It’s difficult to track deaths attributed to these counterfeit fentanyl pills, though. The presence of a substance doesn’t necessarily indicate the method of ingestion. Oftentimes investigators rely on finding samples of the drug on the person or at the site to determine how the drugs were taken.

Many in Active Addiction Avoid Fake Pills

Some might assume that fentanyl pills are a problem for people who already struggle with active addiction. According to the Inquirer’s piece, though, many with active drug problems in areas like Kensington avoid pills.

“People that are not from around here seek them out, and they think they know the difference between a real pill and a fake pill,” explained one man on the street in Kensington. But he continued: “And bodies are dropping left and right.”

He explained that he stopped buying pills years ago after seeing the spread of fake pharmaceuticals. The unpredictable supply wasn’t worth the risk. Instead, he said many choose to stick with regular fentanyl because then you at least know what you’re getting.

In reality, fake pharmaceuticals seem to be a problem for those who don’t use opioids at all. People looking for pills end up purchasing a laced supply. According to officials, fentanyl has been found in other drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and even hallucinogens. Many individuals using these drugs have little to no tolerance for opioids and have a high risk of overdosing.

As Prevention Point’s overdose prevention and harm reduction coordinator Mary Craighead explained, “Folks getting pills in different parts of the city might disassociate pill use from heroin use — it’s perceived as maybe a less risky behavior because it’s not injection drug use. They don’t think fentanyl can make its way into this pill that maybe they got from their friends or someone they trusted.”

Finding Freedom From Fentanyl

The only way to avoid the risk of a fentanyl overdose is to avoid fake pharmaceuticals and drugs of all kinds in general. Those who struggle with substance abuse may find that cutting back or quitting drugs is more difficult than they thought. Treatment facilities like Peace Valley Recovery offer a solution for anyone trying to stop using drugs and alcohol.

Whether you’ve dealt with substance abuse for years or you’re only now discovering you have a problem, Peace Valley can help. Reach out to us today to learn more about the programs we offer. Your confidential call with one of our admissions specialists can be your first step toward finally finding freedom from fentanyl addiction!

Authored by Elliott Redwine, | Medically Reviewed by Peace Valley Recovery Editorial Staff,
Last Updated: August 18, 2021
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