Pharmacies in several cities in northwestern Mexico are selling counterfeit prescription pills laced with deadly drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl, highlighting how the expansion of the synthetic drugs market is putting unknowing customers at risk.
The report, carried out by researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and corroborated by a similar investigation from the Los Angeles Times, found that counterfeit pills are being marketed as controlled substances like Oxycodone, Percocet, or Adderall.
The UCLA team found that counterfeit controlled substances were available without prescription in two-thirds of the 40 pharmacies visited across four cities in northwestern Mexico, including popular tourist destinations like Tijuana and Cabo San Lucas. Due to the price of the drugs, they were predominantly purchased by US tourists.
Pills containing fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamine were available at more than 10 pharmacies. Of the 45 pill samples taken, nine sold as Adderall tested positive for methamphetamine and eight sold as Oxycodone contained fentanyl. A further three pills sold as Oxycodone contained heroin.
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“Pharmacies providing counterfeit drugs were uniformly located in tourist-serving micro-neighborhoods, and generally featured English-language advertisements,” the report noted.
Americans have long purchased prescription drugs at pharmacies in Mexican border cities to save money. However, telling legitimate and illegitimate medication apart can be very difficult, and many customers are therefore purchasing the tainted drugs unwittingly, the report stated.
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While it isn’t yet clear how pharmacies are obtaining counterfeit pills laced with illegal substances, the reach and power of drug-producing groups on the Mexican side of the border would position them as potential providers.
And Morgan Godvin, a drug and justice policy expert and one of the report’s co-authors, suggested that organized crime groups were responding to market demand. As wealthy tourists began asking for Oxycodone at pharmacies, it’s possible that criminal groups spotted an opportunity to supply pharmacies with counterfeit pills, she told InSight Crime.
“What is most surprising is that the same pills that dominate the US opioid market are being sold at some Mexican pharmacies for many times the cost,” Godvin told InSight Crime.
In Portland, Oregon, she said these pills cost around $5, whereas in Mexico they can cost between $25-35.
The difference in price also suggests a difference in what consumers are expecting. In the United States, as InSight Crime reported, more and more consumers are looking for fentanyl and would thus expect knock-off prices because they know the pills are counterfeit. Whereas in Mexico, ironically, US consumers may think they are getting the real drug at cut-rate prices compared to the retail costs in the United States.
The proliferation of counterfeit pills “represents a serious overdose risk to buyers who think they are getting a known quantity of a weaker drug,” according to Chelsea Shover, a senior author of the report.
It's not clear how this cartel-to-pharmacy market would work. US authorities have pointed to the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) as the two main groups behind the production and trafficking of fentanyl into the United States, aiding tens of thousands of overdose deaths each year. Sinaloa, a northern state that gives its name to the Sinaloa Cartel, is suspected to be the major production center for both fentanyl and methamphetamine in Mexico.
But there may be some distance between them and the pharmacy shelves.
“I suspect there’s some type of intermediary between these groups and the pharmacies selling the counterfeit pills,” said Jaime Arredondo, a professor at the University of Victoria and researcher with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
Still, Mexican groups have a long history of involvement in the legal pharmaceutical markets. In 2012, US authorities raised the alarm about “pharma cartels” in Mexico that were undercutting the prescription drug market in the United States with illicitly-obtained medications. In 2018, the Mexican Association of Pharmaceutical Research Industries (Asociación Mexicana de Industrias de Investigación Farmacéutica - AMIF) reported that almost two-thirds of the medication sold in Mexico “is either stolen, expired, falsified, or produced without meeting minimum quality requirements,” InSight Crime reported.
Northern Mexican cities have been hit hard by the growth of synthetic drug trafficking given their strategic location along key smuggling routes. Illicit fentanyl, for example, has already slipped into the local heroin supply in Tijuana, while domestic use of methamphetamine is also growing in Mexico.