DEA: Drug Cartels Targeting Pain Patients as Potential Customers

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By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s “National Drug Threat Assessment” is an interesting annual report that gives insight into drug trafficking and drug abuse trends in the United States that you don’t often see in the mainstream media..

The DEA’s 2020 report, released this month, is no exception. One hundred pages long, it covers a broad range of “unclassified” information about drug cartels, counterfeit medication and emerging trends in drug abuse.

“Although we have made progress in driving down the abuse of controlled prescription opioids, the United States continues to face challenges from both new and persistent threats,” said acting DEA Administrator Christopher Evans.

According to the DEA report, the diversion and abuse of opioid painkillers and other controlled prescription drugs (CPDs) are at their “lowest levels in nine years.”

While opioid pain relievers remain the most commonly abused type of prescription drug, most people don’t take them to get high.

The DEA said nearly two-thirds (64%) of drug users “identified relieving pain as the main purpose” for their misuse of painkillers – a staggering statistic that may say more about the poor state of pain care in the U.S. than anything else.

Ironically, the second most widely abused opioid medication was buprenorphine, which is combined with naloxone in addiction treatment drugs such as Suboxone and Zubsolv. The National Forensic Laboratory (NFLIS) reports that buprenorphine is abused far more often than methadone or hydrocodone, and appears poised to soon replace oxycodone as the most commonly abused prescription opioid.

“Drug data reveals that buprenorphine reports from all participating federal, state, and local laboratories increased each year except a minor drop from 2018 to 2019. (NFLIS) reported a 50 to 67 percent decrease of hydrocodone, methadone, and oxycodone reports from 2014 to 2019, so the 27 percent increase of buprenorphine during that time frame was significant,” DEA said.

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Fentanyl Laced Counterfeit Pills

Not surprisingly, the DEA said illicit fentanyl was “primarily responsible for fueling the ongoing opioid crisis,” with Mexican drug cartels controlling most of the supply for the potent synthetic opioid. With hydrocodone, oxycodone and other legal opioid medications in short supply — and a lot of people with poorly treated pain — the DEA believes drug cartels are actively targeting pain sufferers as potential customers for counterfeit medication.

“The spread of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills in the United States is likely due to Mexican TCOs (Transnational Criminal Organizations) seeking to further distribute fentanyl into prescription opioid user populations,” the DEA said. “The increasing number of counterfeit pills resembling prescription medications and users who may be pivoting to abusing illicit substances with waning CPD availability may prove to be a significant threat into 2021.”

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The counterfeit pill of choice for the drug cartels are fake 30mg oxycodone tablets, stamped with an “M” on one side and “30” on the other.

Known on the street as “Mexican Oxy” or “M30s,” the DEA says the blue tablets “demonstrate that traffickers are taking advantage of an established market for these pills.”

Illicit fentanyl tablets appear to be getting more lethal, with laboratory tests showing 26 percent of them containing a potentially fatal dose of fentanyl in 2019, compared to just 10 percent in 2017.

In one chilling paragraph, the DEA seemed to acknowledge it was losing the war on drugs to Mexican cartels and local criminal gangs.

“Barring significant, unanticipated changes to the illicit drug market, Mexican TCOs will continue to dominate the wholesale importation and distribution of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, and fentanyl in U.S. markets. No other criminal organizations currently possess a logistical infrastructure to rival that of Mexican TCOs. Mexican TCOs will continue to grow in the United States through expansion of distribution networks and continued interaction with local criminal groups and gangs,” the agency warned.

Sometimes what is not disclosed in the DEA’s report is just as revealing as what is actually said. For example, while the DEA officially lists kratom as a “drug of concern” and even tried to ban the herbal supplement in 2016, the agency has never said a word about kratom in its annual threat assessment. Not in 2020. Not ever.

Why is that? Is kratom not addictive or dangerous, despite all the public hand-wringing over the years by the Food and Drug Administration? In a 2018 letter to the DEA recently made public, federal health officials quietly withdrew their request to schedule kratom as a controlled substance because of “lack of evidence” it can be abused or posed a public health threat.

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