Authorities believe that counterfeit prescription painkillers containing fentanyl could be behind the deaths of seven people in Sacramento, California.
County health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye says more than 30 overdoses — including seven fatal — have been linked to a white oblong pill with "M367" printed on one side that looks like a generic version of Vicodin. The fake pills may contain pure fentanyl, which can be 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. The coroner has yet to release the official causes of death or confirmed what caused the overdoses, The Guardian reports.
While use of the opiate is rising along the East Coast and in Canada, DEA special agent Casey Rettig told The Guardian this is the first time the drug has been seen in Northern California. One kilo of fentanyl only costs around $3,300, with a street value of "over a million in revenue," Rettig said. Authorities believe the counterfeit drug is being made in Chinese labs, then shipped to Mexico, where it is packed and smuggled to the U.S.
Kasirye said people first started being brought in for overdoses on March 24, and within days patients were admitted to every local hospital. Those who overdosed reportedly took one or two pills, which they either bought from strangers or received from friends or family. "It happens very quickly," she said. "People would start feeling dizzy after a few minutes and within 20 minutes were collapsing." Physicians are asked to be cautious when prescribing opioids, and Kasirye told The Guardian that's what could be causing addicts to buy their painkillers illegally. "For some of them, what they were saying is that they are not able to get it from their doctor any more," she said. "Many of them were actually functional, had homes, had children, had families. They're not the typical picture you hear of what an addict is."