Counterfeit Drugs: Fake Xanax
For this week’s alprazolam blog, I want to know if I can fake you out. We’re going to talk about fake Xanax. Look at the picture above. Can you tell which Xanax are fake? Are you certain? Enough to roll the dice with your life on the pass line? Because, make no mistake- if you get your Xanax from anywhere other than a licensed pharmacy, you are absolutely, positively doing so every single time you take it. By the end of this blog, you’ll definitely know the answer to the first question. As to the second, I’d hope you already know the answer, because even Captain Obvious won’t bother with that one, people.
When you think of counterfeit drugs, you may not be too concerned if you consider them to be just weakened copycat versions of the real thing, made with a bunch of essentially harmless junk. Probably the worst that could happen is it won’t work, right? Wrong! Obviously, the main problem with counterfeit drugs in general is that they’re clearly illegal and therefore unregulated, so you don’t know what you’re getting. I mean, with counterfeit drugs, there’s no truth in advertising. And helll-ooo, they’re produced in somebody’s gnarly basement, so there sure as hell isn’t any quality control. While they can be cut with innocuous things like baking soda or baby powder, they can also be laced with extremely harmful substances, things like rat poison, bleach, and formaldehyde. Unfortunately, many drug users don’t know, or don’t care, how dangerous it is to ingest substances like these. But there are cases where counterfeit drugs are especially dangerous, and fake or counterfeit Xanax is at the top of that list. In late 2015, the entire country learned this lesson the hard way when in three months, there were nine documented cases where people in San Francisco suddenly overdosed from “Xanax.” To be clear, it wasn’t Xanax at all. That number included a baby, who had picked a tab of it up off the floor and put it in their mouth. It also included one person who didn’t even get to live to regret it. I think we got off pretty easily in that singular event, but obviously more have followed.
By the Numbers… Without Numbers (?)
Again, since production and sale of fake Xanax is illegal, underground, and unregulated, there aren’t national or global databases to collect information or statistics as there are with other drugs. But I found some reports from various global sources that were interesting. And by that I mean frightening. Some highlight snippets include a report citing that 25% of 2018 drug overdose deaths in Northern Ireland were caused by counterfeit Xanax. Another report from U.S. Customs and Border Protection stated that in the first four months of 2020, during unspecified smuggling attempts, their CBP officers seized 27 shipments of fake Xanax, totalling over 35 pounds. I also listened to part of a podcast on the subject that featured an officer from Portland, Oregon talking about a spate of teenage overdoses on fake Xanax, and the subsequent investigation. They apparently did a round up of all the street dealers they could find, and busted down doors and did everything they could to clean up the area. The goal was to get every Xanax pill off the street, and he stated that of all the “Xanax” pills they recovered, not a single one was legit. He didn’t say exactly how many that was, but it seemed like a lot. Every pill in the area was fake. That’s huge. And very scary.
Fake Xanax: Beyond the Obvious
“Good” counterfeit Xanax pills look exactly like the real thing. And clearly, by “good” I don’t mean that in the traditional sense. That means they have the same color, size, shape, and pharmaceutical markings, aka imprints, on the pills as the bonafide prescription versions do. While the difference isn’t obvious to the naked eye, there is one huge difference between real and fake Xanax that makes it especially scary: the latter usually contains fentanyl, an extremely potent opioid that is responsible for countless accidental overdoses in numerous counterfeit and legal preparations. In fact, it’s estimated that many thousands of U.S. citizens ingest a deadly dose of each year without ever even realizing it. How horribly tragic and senseless is that?
Fentanyl is a schedule II synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin and morphine, respectively. It is typically prescribed by a specialized physician strictly for patients struggling with severe or chronic pain, and it is such a potent and dangerous drug that the DEA has advised officials to take extra protective precautions, like gloves, even just when handling it, to avoid accidental death. This is because it is easily absorbed through the skin, and takes so little to be lethal. While other opiate doses are measured in milligrams, fentanyl is dosed in micrograms, and an amount equal to two grains of salt is lethal to nearly all individuals. Clearly, a drug that is 100 times stronger than morphine is no joke, and it officially now kills more Americans annually than any drug in history.
People who take fentanyl accidentally will be unaware of what they have taken, or how much, so they face an even higher risk of an opioid overdose. In the case of fake Xanax exposure, if or when a person does overdose on it, in the unlikely event that they’re lucky enough to make it to a hospital, it presents a unique problem. As a physician, I can tell you that when a person’s symptoms present differently from what is expected, it delays treatment, and Xanax overdose and fentanyl overdose present very differently. So when it’s reported that a person took “Xanax,” or some pills are found on their person, but their symptoms don’t look like a benzodiazepine overdose, those few minutes a medic or doc takes to assess the situation may be the few that end up costing them their lives. But that can be the case fake percocet or oxycodone as well, because fentanyl is commonly used in producing counterfeit versions of all of those. Even cocaine- maybe especially so because of the cost differential- fentanyl is so much cheaper that it’s very commonly used to cut it. And talk about presenting differently: cocaine and fentanyl overdose are not even remotely similar to one another. Even if users are aware that fentanyl is in the product, and aren’t that concerned about it, there’s still no way to know how much fentanyl is in it, or exactly how potent that fentanyl is. As a result, it is extremely easy to overdose after consuming any counterfeit product.
Since the pills look exactly like the real thing, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference. But, if someone consumes counterfeit Xanax made with fentanyl, there will be noticeable symptoms and side effects that wouldn’t ordinarily be present with genuine Xanax. The side effects of fentanyl include excessive itching, slowed breathing, nausea and vomiting, flushed skin, and constricted pupils. These can quickly progress to overdose, and those signs and symptoms are progressively shallow breathing, usually followed by gurgling or choking sounds, or sounds like “snoring,” pale, blue, cold, or clammy skin, limp body or unresponsiveness, and finally suppressed breathing. People often report that they didn’t recognize that someone was overdosing, even though they literally sat there watching it. They usually think they’ve nodded out and are snoring, and then just stop snoring. In reality, they’re really choking, then their breathing is severely suppressed, and when they stop making noise, they’ve simply stopped breathing. Fentanyl also yields some dangerous psychological effects, such as depression, hallucinations, difficulty sleeping, and nightmares. These are all signs to be aware of if you ever take a drug from a questionable source.
Fake Xanax: How it’s Done
Counterfeit Xanax is made using a pill press, which is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a device that is used to press powders together with a binding agent, to make the substance into a solid pill form. Pill pressing devices can be smaller than the size of a person’s palm, or large enough to need a small room for storage. Pill molds are added to the pill press to press the pills into certain sizes and to make markings or indentations. Sometimes they’re called “stamps,” and manufacturers use these to customize the appearance of the pill and mimic the exact imprint used by the legit pharmaceutical company. Currently, it’s not illegal to own a pill press, and in fact, some people use them to make their own vitamins or supplements at home. But it is illegal to own a pill mold that is used in a pill press. As a result, counterfeit pill molds are usually designed in other countries and sold to the U.S. as “spare parts” or “equipment.” This allows street dealers and manufacturers to purchase their supplies without gaining attention from the police, and continue to make fake drugs in their gnarly basements.
Fake Xanax: Why it’s Done
Helll-oooo! People who sell drugs don’t do so because they enjoy it, they do it to earn a profit. It behooves them to find a way to make their drugs cheaper and more potent, because that’s the best way to generate more profit from a smaller amount of product- that’s just common business sense. Believe it or not, many street-level dealers can get their hands on fentanyl very cheaply, either through theft, or through overseas production of cheap, sketchy fentanyl look-a-likes, so they commonly use it to cut their drugs, and this actually makes their products cheaper and more potent. To be clear, these fake products may not even contain the actual primary component. But in cases of fake Xanax, if it does contain actual alprazolam, the combination makes it even more dangerous- but the fentanyl alone can just as easily provide or mimic the effects the user is looking for. The result is a product that looks and feels pretty much like real Xanax, but is infinitely more dangerous; sold at a fraction of the price, as compared to the real thing, brought to you by your friendly neighborhood street thug.
Fake Xanax: How to Avoid It
Clearly, the easiest way to avoid purchasing fake Xanax is to never purchase the drug on the streets in the first place. In fact, the only reason anyone should ever take Xanax in the first place is if they have a prescription for it and are instructed to by their doctor. Unfortunately, some people who are prescribed the medication seek out cheaper ways to fill their prescription, such as purchasing it from shady online pharmacies or from overseas stores. But you’d be surprised how enterprising some dealers are, and a “pharmacy” selling counterfeit drugs is certainly not unheard of. So kids, the take home lesson is that if you have a Xanax prescription, you should always get it filled at a licensed pharmacy.
Fentanyl: The Masked Killer
As a final word of caution, I just wanted to include a short synopsis of three stories I read about counterfeit drugs containing fentanyl. None of them have happy endings.
A 28-year-old smoked “a powdery substance” at his mother’s home, where he was living at the time. His mother found him unresponsive in the living room, and having no idea of what had happened, called 911. He was pronounced dead on arrival. The death investigation determined that the substance had been given to him by a friend, who stated they both thought it was cocaine. Toxicology confirmed that while he had a non-lethal level of cocaine in his system at the time of death, the cause of death was acute fentanyl intoxication- he died of a fentanyl overdose.
A 20-year-old college student suffering from undiagnosed anxiety was panicking about a test the following day, so consumed a single oxycodone pill he had obtained illegally before going to bed. His roommates found him dead the next morning. Toxicology confirmed that he died from a fentanyl overdose.
A 19-year-old purchased two Percocet from a friend. He consumed both pills and subsequently died from an overdose. His friend confirmed the purchase, but then toxicology showed the presence of lethal levels of fentanyl. His friend swore he didn’t know they were fake and was very distraught. That friend was also later found dead of an overdose. It was confirmed that it was also due to fentanyl, but it wasn’t clear if it was suicide or accidental.
These are cases where four individuals died of fentanyl overdose, with all of them consuming a different drug, and three of them never even realizing they were consuming fentanyl. On that note, have you decided which group of Xanax in the picture were fake? I’ll tell you now: both are fake. Guess it’s a good thing you couldn’t actually choose. Get my point?
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