PORTLAND, Ore. — The Drug Enforcement Administration and health officials are warning about a big danger from counterfeit pain pills: There's been a huge influx, and a large percentage of them could be deadly.

The pills look like they could have come from a pharmacy. But the DEA says they're made by Mexican drug cartels and smuggled into the United States.

The DEA tested a bunch of counterfeit pharmaceutical pills seized across the country earlier this year and found 27% had potentially lethal doses of fentanyl.

"It is significant that there is such a high percentage of high-potency fentanyl being brought into the Pacific Northwest," said Cam Strahm, the DEA's assistant special agent in charge for Oregon. 

He said a lethal dose of the synthetic opioid is about 2 milligrams.

"And the potency is a real problem with inexperienced users, or inexperienced people with substance abuse disorder."

The risk of death can vary from person to person. But everyone is at risk when buying pills on the street.

"It’s difficult to tell the difference between a counterfeit and a real pill, so people may take a higher dose than they anticipated, because they don’t know what they’re taking," said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the Oregon State Health Officer. "The number of prescriptions is going down, but the fentanyl deaths are going up."

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He describes a changing landscape with opiod-type medicines: Awareness is up about the dangers of prescription opioids, but fentanyl continues to flood the black market in Oregon. 

The consequence is a sharp rise in fentanyl deaths, from less than 10 in 2013 to 73 in 2018. Much of the danger comes in the form of these counterfeit pills.

Sidelinger said there is help for people who want to stop their addiction "and otherwise take steps to help protect themselves. Like naloxone, which will reverse the effects of the overdose, and to have the individuals around them have naloxone available, We want to prevent tragedies in those individuals that are continuing to use."

The bottom line: You just don't know what you'll get unless it's coming from a pharmacy. 

The DEA is working with local authorities on making busts, and with health agencies to get the word out about this potent danger.

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