Reducing the number of legitimate painkiller pills being sold illegally on the street is having an unintended consequence: Mexican drug cartels are now shipping potentially lethal look-alikes that mimic oxy but contain fentanyl.
Oxycodone can come in the form of a blue 30-milligram pill that is among the most popular street drugs, said Dr. Michael Lynch, director of the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center.
There is more street demand for pills than for heroin — or addicts who are intentionally trying to buy fentanyl.
The bogus blue oxycodone pills that are being found in Western Pennsylvania look identical to real oxycodone pills but contain fentanyl, according to Drug Enforcement Administration Supervisory Special Agent Pat Trainor.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is far stronger; if mixed in, even 2 milligrams, it can be lethal.
A DEA survey of blue pills confiscated nationwide during the first three months of the year found that 27% — close to one-third — contained potentially lethal amounts of fentanyl.
The DEA said the look-alikes first seen in New York have been sold on Western Pennsylvania streets since 2016. Among the drug’s victims was rapper Mac Miller, a Pittsburgh native who overdosed in California.
DEA officials say the cartels are mixing in fentanyl in order to use up surplus and to lure junkies who are shunning other illicit drugs because fentanyl already was showing up in cocaine and others.
“The cartels are putting fentanyl in everything,” said Karl Williams, Allegheny County medical examiner. “Heroin, cocaine, pills.”
Trainor said most people seeking illegal drugs want to buy the real “blues” instead of the stuff mixed in “kitchen labs” sold by the cartels. But there’s often no way to tell the difference.
Lynch, the poison control center director, is aware of at least 10 overdoses that he suspects were caused by the look-alike oxycodone pills. None of those people died.
According to data assembled by Overdose FreePA, heroin- and fentanyl-caused deaths from 2011 to 2019 in Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland counties were about even. Heroin caused 2,465 deaths in the period and fentanyl killed about 100 fewer people.
But Williams notes that most addicts who die are usually have three or more drugs in their bloodstreams.