standing Rhode Island State House

An increase in non-fatal overdoses nationwide including a spike in Rhode Island earlier this month has led the Rhode Island Department of Health and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to issue a warning regarding the availability of counterfeit pills containing the potentially lethal substances fentanyl and methamphetamine.

In a press release issued Monday, DEA officials attributed the recent rise in overdoses to “international and domestic criminal drug networks” that are mass-producing fake pills and falsely marketing them as prescriptions.

“These counterfeit pills are easy to purchase, widely available, and often contain deadly doses of fentanyl,” the DEA said. “Pills purchased outside of a licensed pharmacy are illegal, dangerous, and potentially lethal.”

The Department of Health on Friday had issued a public health alert following a drastic uptick in overdoses in the state. According to a release issued through Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken, the state had received notice of 48 opioid overdoses between Sept. 12 and Sept. 18. A public alert is triggered whenever 44 overdoses or more occur within a 7-day period.

The DEA said that law enforcement officials are seizing deadly fake pills at record rates, with more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills already destroyed so far this year, more than the past two years combined. The number of DEA-seized counterfeit pills with fentanyl has jumped nearly 430% since 2019, and DEA laboratory testing further revealed that two out of every five pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose.

Some of the most common counterfeit pills are made to look like prescription opioids such as oxycodone (more commonly known under brand names Oxycontin or Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin) and alprazolam (Xanax), or stimulants like amphetamines (Adderall). 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last year more than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States, marking the largest number of drug-related deaths ever recorded in a year.

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— Jason Vallee

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