INT: Mexican Pharmacies Sell Counterfeit Drugs to U.S. Tourists

With opioid pain medication increasingly harder to obtain in the United States, a growing number of Americans are heading south of the border to get painkillers and other prescription drugs in Mexico.

That’s a risky activity, according to UCLA researchers, who found it was fairly common for Mexican pharmacies to sell counterfeit medication to unsuspecting tourists.

The researchers visited 40 pharmacies in Northern Mexico and purchased samples of oxycodone, hydrocodone, Xanax and Adderall, most of which were obtained without a prescription. Immunoassay testing strips were then used to check each pill for the presence of fentanyls, benzodiazepines, amphetamines and methamphetamines.

Eleven of the 40 pharmacies were found to be selling counterfeit drugs. Of the 27 “oxycodone” tablets purchased, 11 were made with either illicit fentanyl or heroin. One pill sold as “Vicodin” only contained lactose and the weaker opioid tramadol.

Nine of the 11 “Adderall” pills contained methamphetamine, while none of the Xanax pills were found to be counterfeit.

The study findings were first reported online in medRxiv, a website that publishes new medical research before it is peer-reviewed.

“It is not possible to distinguish counterfeit medications based on appearance, because authentic and counterfeit versions are often sold in close geographic proximity and are visually and otherwise indistinguishable from one another. Nevertheless, US tourists may be more trusting of controlled substances purchased directly from pharmacies,” the UCLA researchers said, noting that overdoses are poorly monitored in Mexico, making it difficult to know how many people have died from taking counterfeit pills.

Researchers say the growing trade in counterfeit drugs – both north and south of the border – is due in part to a decade-long crackdown on prescription opioids. Since 2010, opioid prescriptions in the U.S. have fallen by nearly 50 percent.

“These decreases have been shown to have affected many patients with known painful chronic conditions, including terminal cancer, and other palliative care patients. Many patients have been rapidly tapered off opioid regimens, which has been associated with increased rates of suicide and drug overdose. A large unmet demand for diverted and legitimate prescription opioids has led to widespread consumption of counterfeit opioids in the US by witting and unwitting consumers,” researchers said.

One such case involves Jessica Fujimaki, a 42-year-old intractable pain patient, who lost access to opioids after the DEA suspended her doctor’s license to prescribe controlled substances last November. Desperate for relief and going into withdrawal, Fujimaki and her husband made two trips to Mexico from their home in Arizona to buy opioids, but were uncertain of the quality of drugs they purchased. She died in December.

‘These Are Really Strong!’

Perhaps the most widely available counterfeit drug is “Mexican Oxy” – small blue pills that are designed to look like 30mg oxycodone pills. One of the UCLA researchers asked for oxycodone when he visited a Mexican pharmacy:

“We head into the pharmacy and ask for Oxy. The pharmacy employee flashes us a smile and says ‘I have Mexican Oxy or I have American Oxy. American Oxy is 35$ for 20mg, and Mexican Oxy is 20$ for 30mg.’

‘Why is the Mexican Oxy stronger and cheaper?’ I ask.

‘Oh the Mexican oxy is very strong, but it’s cheaper because they give it to us for cheaper,’ he says. ‘You should only take half, and even that’s going to be a lot. The full one might be too dangerous.’

I say, ‘Okay, we’ll take the Mexican Oxy.’ He goes under the counter and pulls out a cardboard box full of syringes. He reaches underneath the needles, and pulls up this false bottom on the box, and the bottom is full of these little blue pills, just loose in the box.

He takes one out of the pile and puts it in a little plastic bag for us. As he hands it to me. He’s says, ‘Okay guys, these are really strong! Please be careful.’”

When that “Mexican Oxy” pill was analyzed later, it tested positive for fentanyl.

Two reporters for the Los Angeles Times recently found how easy it is to get counterfeit medication in Mexico when they visited pharmacies in Tijuana, Cabo San Lucas and several other northwestern cities. The reporters found that 71% of the 17 pills they purchased were fake. The “oxycodone” and “hydrocodone” pills tested positive for fentanyl, while pills sold as “Adderall” tested positive for methamphetamine.

Asked to comment on the Times investigation, the U.S. State Department, DEA and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy failed to respond to repeated inquiries. Local and national government agencies in Mexico also ignored requests for comment.

Most of the drug experts interviewed by the Times said they’d never before heard of pharmacies selling counterfeit pills.

“I haven’t seen anything like that,” said Cecilia Farfán-Mendez, a researcher at UC San Diego’s Center of U.S.-Mexican Studies. “I think it speaks to the lack of law enforcement monitoring what’s happening in the pharmacies.”

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