NewsLocal NewsMichigan


'These pills cannot be discerned from the real thing with a naked eye’: DEA warns of fake pills flooding streets

Red Project says test strips and Narcan saves lives.
Posted at 7:50 PM, Jan 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-27 20:57:50-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Millions of counterfeit pills are circulating in communities across the country, including West Michigan, and the Drugs Enforcement Administration want people to be aware.

“These pills cannot be discerned from the real thing with a naked eye. They have to be sent to a lab to analyze what’s inside them,” said Brian McNeal with the DEA during a Zoom interview on Thursday. “These drug trafficking organizations are flooding the market with these counterfeit pills. If we’re to seize 100 of these counterfeit pills right now, 42 percent of them will contain a lethal dosage of many times fentanyl.”

Back in October 2021, the DEA launched the One Pill Can Kill awareness campaign. Between the launch and December, they seized eight million fake pills nationwide, said McNeal, who’s the public information officer with the Detroit division of the DEA.

“Years ago we were seeing hundreds. In just two years, we’re seeing thousands. To seize 10,000 or 20,000 [in one seizure] isn’t unheard of in Michigan,” McNeal said. “A ziplock bag can have five to ten thousand of these pills. So they’re not hard to hide. That’s one of the reasons these drug organizations are turning to these counterfeit pills.”

McNeal said that it’s an easy and cheap way to get drugs into the region.

He added that drug traffickers are now using social media to push them.

“These short-form videos, social media platforms they’re being sold and purchased on, social media sometimes using emojis,” he said. “One of the things that we’ve determined is that instead of typing out words, just put a few pictures in the right sequences and you're advertising drugs.”

Even though it’s on social media, people from all age groups are buying fake pills, he said. Pills like Xanax, oxycodone and hydrocodone are some of the main ones being counterfeited.

“There’s been a huge increase in counterfeit pills in the past few years,” said Catherine Kelly with Red Project during an interview on Thursday afternoon. “So, it started off with a lot of Xanax bars and it spun off from there. So, fentanyl was a part of heroin for a while before this. But now we’re seeing it across almost all illicit substances.”

The Red Project, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping people who battle substance use and opioid use disorder explore better health choices and offer test strips so that people can protect themselves from tainted pills.

“Testing substances is really important. The fact of the matter is people are going to use drugs and I’m not going to try and tell them not to,” Kelly said. “But what we do ask people to do is test their substances if they’re unsure of the source.”

READ MORE: CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart pharmacies responsible for role in opioid crisis, jury finds

She said how it’s done is by dissolving the entire pill in water, and then dipping in the test strip. Immediately they’ll know if it’s laced with fentanyl.

“There are a lot of intricacies with fentanyl. It’s not going to tell someone how much fentanyl is there, and it’s not always evenly distributed throughout the pill,” Kelly said. “So, it is important to dissolve the whole thing. If they break off one half, there could be most of the fentanyl in the other half.”

She added that learning how to use Narcan can also save lives. It’s a product they offer at the Red Project office on Hall and Madison streets.

The Opioid Task Force with the Kent County Health Department reported that between January 2020 and November 2021, there were 176 overdose deaths and 142 of them were opioid related. Of the 142, 90 percent stemmed from fentanyl.

Kelly said the public also has the power to save lives by not shaming those who struggle with substances.

“We should try and look for ways to not lose these people to the substance use,” Kelly said. “Again, that’s carrying Narcan, that’s knowing how to respond to an overdose, and just remembering that these are human beings. These are people we don’t have to lose to an opioid overdose.”

READ MORE: Michigan health department seeks racial equity consultant to combat opioid crisis

Follow FOX 17: Facebook - Twitter - Instagram - YouTube