Officials from Washington, D.C. to Mexico City have begun calling for action after an ‘alarming’ investigation by the Los Angeles Times revealed that some Mexican pharmacies were selling counterfeit drugs containing potent narcotics, including fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Some U.S. lawmakers urged federal agencies to investigate, while others advocated pressuring Mexican authorities or considering new legislation. In Mexico, a federal prosecutor said her office plans to investigate the findings, which she described as “a new modus operandi” that raises concerning questions, including whether pharmacies are knowingly breaking the law.
The temperature first detail the phenomenon earlier this month, after reporters traveled to three towns in northwestern Mexico and tested 17 pills purchased over-the-counter from pharmacies. Twelve tested positive for fentanyl or methamphetamine.
The findings echo those published in a recent UCLA study who reviewed 45 pills purchased from pharmacies in the same area. Drug market experts have said the likely sources are cartels looking to expand their customer base with a cheap, easy-to-manufacture drug: fentanyl.
Although fentanyl has been appearing in pills and powders bought on the street for years, its presence in drugs offered in legitimate pharmacies aimed at tourists could signal a dangerous new twist in the fentanyl crisis.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called the Times reports “alarming” and called for a swift federal response.
“I urge the State Department to consider issuing a notice to alert travelers to this potential threat, and I call on the DEA and FDA to immediately investigate these findings,” said Markey, who was a member of the US Synthetic Opioid Trafficking Commission. said in a statement. “No one should be overdosed on a counterfeit drug, especially a drug sold in pharmacies.”
Jeremy Khan, spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said in a statement that while it does not regulate products intended for markets in other countries, “the agency recommends that U.S. consumers obtain all prescription drugs from a licensed pharmacy in the United States and avoid products not intended for the US market as they may not have reliable evidence of safety and effectiveness.
The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy said in a brief statement that it plans to “work closely with the Mexican government” to “suppress trafficking operations.” The United States Drug Enforcement Administration referred all requests to the State Department or Mexican authorities.
The State Department “has no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens abroad,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We will not go into details about US citizens affected by counterfeit drugs for privacy reasons,” the spokesperson added.
Asked about the findings, another State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told reporters at a Feb. 2 press briefing, he said he was “not immediately aware of any individual cases.” However, he said, “we are acutely aware of the threat that fentanyl poses, not only to American tourists in Mexico, but also to Americans and people around the world.”
The calls for action come a month after President Biden visited his Mexican counterpart, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to discuss immigration, security and fentanyl trafficking. The trip marked the first time a US leader visited the country in nearly a decade amid tensions driven in part by disagreements over how to handle the war on drugs.
The leaders of the two countries have not directly addressed this possible new front in the fentanyl crisis. Only one Mexican official — Gilda Alejandra Llera Muñoz, of the attorney general’s office in Mexico City — responded to requests for comment from The Times.
Llera, a federal prosecutor who specializes in fentanyl-related crimes, called pharmacies selling counterfeit pills containing fentanyl “a new modus operandi that we haven’t detected before.”
She said Mexican authorities “need to find where in the process they are faking the pills” and determine “if the pharmacies are involved in criminal activity or if they don’t know if they are selling fentanyl-containing drugs.”
Llera added that his agency is “sure that cartels are involved” in the production and distribution of tainted fake pills such as those journalists purchased last month from pharmacies in Tijuana, Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo. .
She said the drug distribution tactics of the cartels were “evolving very rapidly” and she planned to send the Times reports to authorities in Tijuana, Los Cabos and their respective states on the Baja California Peninsula “so that they could [be made] aware of the new modus operandi and can visit these pharmacies.
U.S. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) called on Congress to take action in response to the findings. He repeatedly urged the Biden administration to do more to address the fentanyl crisis and introduced legislation last month that would reduce the amount of fentanyl needed to trigger a harsh mandatory minimum sentence.
“Reports that illicit fentanyl is being sold in a deceptive manner at state-regulated pharmacies is disturbing and unacceptable,” Banks said in a statement. “Congress should use the power of the stock market to hold the Mexican government to account and demand greater efforts to stop the flow of fentanyl across our southern border.”
U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I-Arizona) said in a statement responding to the Times report that “counterfeit drugs mixed with fentanyl and methamphetamine pose serious and life-threatening risks to all Arizonans.” .
Markey, who studied the overdose crisis in the United States as a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said that “counterfeit pills sold in Mexican pharmacies could constitute a deadly threat, not only to Mexicans, but also to vacationing and traveling Americans. in Mexico and those filling their prescriptions south of the border.
For California State Senator John Laird, this potential threat is reason enough to explore state-level legislation to address the issue.
“These places are within reach, and Americans are going there, and they’re at risk in ways that weren’t apparent before,” the Santa Cruz Democrat said, as reported by The Times. in its initial investigation earlier this month. “And I think as this story comes out and we learn more details, we’ll have to watch to see if there’s any state legislation that needs to be looked at.”
But some experts have warned against laws that would increase criminal penalties, which Laird did not propose but has always been the country’s approach to tackling new drug threats. Steffanie Strathdee, a distinguished professor of medicine at UC San Diego and co-author of the UCLA-led study, said that would be the wrong approach.
“We just have to go back to what happened with crack, when we separated it from other drugs and vilified people who used a certain drug,” she said. “In the case of fentanyl, people are using it unknowingly, so it would be even more inappropriate to punish users.”
According to Leo Beletsky, an expert in harm reduction and professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, it would be more constructive to make health care and prescription drugs more accessible in the United States.
“The fact that there is a demand for prescription drugs in Mexico is a symptom of the fact that these drugs are hard to obtain or too expensive in the United States,” he said.
“I think the knee-jerk reaction is…to double down on sanctions and interdiction efforts to, in quotes, ‘stop the flow of drugs into the United States.’ It’s almost like a joke at this point. We’ve been doing this for over 100 years; it’s only made it worse.
Los Angeles Times