32 deaths in metro Phoenix attributed to counterfeit OxyContin pills

Image 1 of 4

Authorities say they have uncovered a dangerous new trend in drug trafficking in Arizona in which addicts are taking counterfeit OxyContin pills that are laced with the more powerful painkiller fentanyl.

The counterfeit pills are responsible for the overdose deaths of 32 people in metro Phoenix over the last 18 months, said Doug Coleman, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's operation in Arizona, noting that the addicts didn't know they were taking a more powerful drug.

"They think they are taking Oxy, but they are taking fentanyl," Coleman said.

Federal agents started seeing the counterfeit pills being smuggled through Arizona two years ago, but those tablets were normally headed to the East Coast and San Francisco area.

But agents started working with the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office to identify such overdose victims when the pills started popping up in Arizona. The 32 people who died in the county over the last 18 months ranged in age from 16 to 64 years old.

The fentanyl-laced pills are produced mostly by Mexican drug cartels that make the tablets from precursor chemicals from China and use pill presses that are capable of making thousands of doses, Coleman said.

The pills are then smuggled across the border by people concealing them on their bodies, concealing them in hidden compartments on vehicles and using other methods.

Fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, is prescribed for cancer patients with a tolerance to other narcotics. The government imposes tight restricts on fentanyl.

Some pharmaceutical fentanyl is illegally diverted to the black market. But most fentanyl used illicitly is made in clandestine labs.