One pill can kill

The DEA says a surge of fentanyl-laced pills is threatening American lives. Image | Courtesy of the DEA

The young man was addicted to opioid painkillers. He purchased pharmaceutical OxyContin pills from a drug dealer working the streets of Kensington. The young man swallowed one of the pills on the spot, but the pill didn’t temporarily relieve his pain or satisfy his addiction. The pill killed him.

The pill was fake, and it contained the illicit and deadly drug fentanyl. 

On Sept. 30, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco and DEA Administrator Anne Milgram held a press conference in Washington, D.C. and announced a surge of law enforcement efforts in communities across the country to stem the flood of fentanyl and fentanyl-laced pills. The two law enforcement officials noted that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid found in most fake pills, was the primary driver of the recent increase in American overdose deaths. 

“Illicit fentanyl was responsible for nearly three-quarters of the more than 93,000 fatal drug overdoses in the United States in 2020,” Monaco said. “The pervasiveness of these illicit drugs, and the fatal overdoses that too often result, is a problem that cuts across America from small towns to big cities and everything in between. One pill can kill. 

“The Justice Department will continue to use all of the resources at its disposal to save lives, complementing strong enforcement efforts with public awareness and outreach campaigns, as well.”

Milgram said that the previous eight weeks, the DEA targeted criminal drug networks that were flooding the country with fentanyl-laced fake pills. 

“DEA remains steadfast in its commitment to reduce drug-related violence and overdose deaths by dismantling the violent, criminal drug distribution networks across the United States,” Milgram said. “The fentanyl-laced fake pills seized by the DEA could potentially kill more than 700,000 Americans. I urge the American public today to talk to their loved ones about the threats and dangers of fake pills and the simple fact that one pill can kill.”

The DEA stated that Mexican drug cartels were mass-producing illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-laced fake pills using chemicals sourced largely from China. The cartels were distributing the fake pills through American criminal networks. The fake pills are designed to appear nearly identical to legitimate prescriptions such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Adderall, Xanax and other medicines. 

The DEA explained that criminals were selling the fake pills through social media, e-commerce, the dark web, and street distribution networks, making them widely available. DEA laboratory testing reveals that four out of 10 fentanyl-laced fake pills contain a potentially lethal dose. And the number of fake pills containing fentanyl has jumped nearly 430 percent since 2019.

“Fentanyl – in powder and pill form – is a significant U.S. public health threat that is killing tens of thousands of Americans,” the DEA stated. “Over the past two months, working in concert with federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, the DEA seized 1.8 million fentanyl-laced fake pills and arrested 810 drug traffickers in cities, suburbs, and rural communities spanning the United States. These recent seizures add to the more than 9.5 million potentially deadly fake pills that DEA seized in the past year, which is more than the last two years combined.”

The DEA said they also seized 712 kilograms of fentanyl powder: enough to make tens of millions of lethal pills. They also seized 158 weapons and 4,011 kilograms of methamphetamine and 653 kilograms of cocaine. The number of seized counterfeit pills with fentanyl has jumped nearly 430 percent since 2019. 

I reached out to the DEA’s Philadelphia Field Division and asked Supervisory Special Agent Patrick J. Trainor about how Philadelphia is affected by the counterfeit pills.    

“Pharmaceutical pills such as oxycodone products, Xanax, and Adderall are very effective in helping people to manage pain, anxiety, and hyperactivity. However, there is also a lucrative illicit market for the illegal diversion of these same pills,” Trainor explained. “What is of concern to us at DEA are the public health and safety implications of people who think they are taking a legitimately produced pill could in fact be exposed to a lethal dose of illicit fentanyl.” 

Trainor said the DEA in Philadelphia has seized several hundred counterfeit pills in the past.

“Now our office is seizing tens of thousands of counterfeit pills at a time, which shows how prevalent and available these pills are in the illicit drug market,” said Trainor. 

The DEA has launched a “One Pill Can Kill” campaign to inform the public of the dangers of fake prescription pills. The DEA said the only safe medications are ones prescribed by a trusted medical professional and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist. All others are unsafe and potentially deadly.

Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. You can contact him via

  • Paul Davis

    Having worked as a crime reporter and columnist in Philadelphia for many years, Paul Davis has covered organized crime, cybercrime, street crime, white collar crime, crime prevention, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at

More Popular Articles

Upcoming Philly Events