Fentanyl-laced pressed pills are becoming more common in Pennsylvania, officials warn.
Philadelphia city officials are issuing a warning that fentanyl is showing up more and more frequently in ‘pressed pills,’ which are fake painkillers laced with the deadly synthetic opioid. They warn that they’ve seen an uptick in overdose fatalities from these prescription-like illicit pills, which dealers are turning to because they are inexpensive to produce and turn a high profit.
“Fentanyl is also being pressed into pills that resemble prescription opioids or benzodiazepines,” health officials said. “While fentanyl has been in Philadelphia’s heroin supply for several years, its presence in non-opioid drugs and counterfeit pills is especially concerning as individuals who prefer these drugs may have had little exposure to such a potent opioid and may be at an even greater risk for overdose.”
“People have been selling fake pills for a while, but not quite to this extent,” said Pat Trainor, a spokesperson for the local Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “We’ve seen counterfeit pills for many years, but the availability has really skyrocketed over the past year. It’s of great concern to us – as if Philadelphia isn’t saturated enough with fentanyl products.”
By 2019, fake pills made up 9% of the federal agency’s total fentanyl seizures. And, other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, and hallucinogens like PCP, have also tested positive for the powerful opioid.
“People that are not from around here seek them out, and they think they know the difference between a real pill and a fake pill,” said an unnamed man sitting on a curb. “And bodies are dropping left and right.” He said he stopped buying pills years ago. “It’s safer to buy regular fentanyl, because you know what you’re getting.”‘
“Unless a sample of the drug is found on the person at the scene, or the next of kin has a sample of it, we have no way of knowing how the drugs were taken in – whether ingested, injected, swallowed – or in what form the drug was in,” said Kendra Viner, the director of substance use prevention and harm reduction for the city health department. “The city’s anecdotal evidence shows pressed pills are a particular problem in South Philadelphia, where drug use is heavily stigmatized and tends to happen behind closed doors. But they’re available in the open-air drug markets in Kensington, too.”
“In Kensington, folks know that fentanyl is in everything, so I think the knowledge is there,” said Mary Craighead, the overdose prevention and harm reduction coordinator at Prevention Point. “Folks getting pills in different parts of the city might disassociate pill use from heroin use. It’s perceived as maybe a less risky behavior because it’s not injection drug use. They don’t think fentanyl can make its way into this pill that maybe they got from their friends, or someone they trusted.”
Craighead and Viner said, even though data is not yet available, 2020 likely saw the highest number of drug overdose deaths in Philadelphia to date, and officials plan to launch a community education initiative to prevent fentanyl overdoses. There are also plans to conduct street outreach, give out fentanyl test strips and naloxone, and launch a media campaign.
“The risk of overdose is becoming more and more an issue,” Viner said. “We need as many prevention mechanisms in place as possible to prevent an overdose.”