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Editorial: Counterfeit drugs could be next scourge in overdose epidemic

Usually, we're excited to report when Carroll County emerges as a trendsetter, but not in this case. Recently, Carroll became the first jurisdiction in Maryland to have confirmed the presence of counterfeit prescription medications laced with powerful — and deadly — synthetic opioid drugs.

Ersatz versions of medications such as Xanax, Percocet and others used to get high have been linked to deaths in Florida and California. Unlike the actual medications, the counterfeits contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid which is 100 times more powerful than morphine and has resulted in numerous overdose deaths nationwide.

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Carroll public health officials confirmed at least one case of fentanyl poisoning as a result of a counterfeit Xanax pill.

Sheriff Jim DeWees compared buying counterfeit pills on the street to playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun — "you're going to die." Law enforcement in Carroll has said it is more concerned about getting these dangerous substances off the streets and keeping users alive rather than arresting them for possession, which is why police are asking anyone who come across these copycat pills to bring them in.

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Anyone who thinks they've gotten counterfeit pills can contact the Sheriff's Office, no questions asked, DeWees told us. Police can then work with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to track where it came from.

Dealers and distributors have most recently used fentanyl to cut heroin to stretch their product and profits with little regard for the users, and the same economics may be driving them to counterfeit Xanax and other prescription medications popular in street sales, experts say. The availability of commercial-quality pill presses from China have also made it more cost effective for drug traffickers to replicate the pills than going through the hassle of obtaining the real thing to sell on the black market.

Abusing drugs with or without a prescription, and especially those bought on the street, is an incredibly dangerous risk. That risk is intensified when the individual believes he or she is buying a benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium — antianxiety medications — and instead gets an incredibly potent opioid. Even for opioid drug users with a high tolerance, fentanyl can lead to a fatal overdose, which is what we are seeing with many heroin users during this current epidemic.

"Persons who are considered opioid naive clearly would have an adverse reaction that most likely would be an overdose," Sue Doyle, director of the Carroll County Health Department's Bureau of Prevention, Wellness and Recovery, told us regarding someone who may take benzos to get high instead getting a bogus version of the drug.

We know these pills are out there and more will be coming; sadly, there will be more overdoses and more deaths because of it. If you use and encounter such counterfeit drugs, let the police know. If you know someone who uses or has used authentic versions of these drugs recreationally, warn them about the counterfeits. We don't need anymore people to die.

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