Counterfeit opioid pills are tricking users — sometimes with lethal results

More than two dozen patients were rushed into an emergency room in Macon, Ga., over two days with the same array of life-threatening symptoms, including organ failure and sepsis, flummoxing doctors. But after their breathing tubes were removed, the patients revealed a common thread: All had taken what they believed were Percocet pills they had bought on the street.

Although they looked like the prescription painkillers at first glance, the pills they took were nothing like what they expected. They were fakes, an amalgam of substances — including one never before seen in Georgia — pressed into a pill that mimicked those a doctor would prescribe. Instead of a low dose of Percocet, the users were slammed with a near-lethal combination of other drugs, including U-47700, a synthetic opioid the Drug Enforcement Administration said has been linked to dozens of deaths.

Law enforcement officials and medical professionals say that counterfeit opioid pills like those found in Macon have been flooding the illicit drug market and have been sickening — and killing — those who are seeking out powerful prescription drugs amid a worsening national opioid crisis. There is widespread fear that users who believe the prescription drugs are safe — because they are quality-controlled products of a regulated industry — could now unwittingly end up ingesting potent cocktails of unknown substances. In many places, the pills contain fentanyl, a synthetic drug that is driving a nationwide surge in overdose deaths.

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