25 Investigates: DEA warning fake prescription pills are claiming lives across Mass. and country

The latest danger emerging in the opioid epidemic has federal agencies and devastated family members issuing an urgent warning; one pill can kill. Cartels and dealers are making pills, that look just like popular prescription drugs, only theirs are loaded with the deadly synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

Anchor and Investigative Reporter Kerry Kavanaugh got exclusive access to an undisclosed warehouse, operated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s New England Field Division, where evidence of these deadly pills and simple machines that make them are decontaminated and destroyed.

Piece by piece, decontamination crews wearing hazmat suits are deconstructing a deadly threat that’s claiming lives in our country every day. 25 Investigates is taking our viewers and readers inside an evidence warehouse where cameras have never been allowed before. It’s in here the DEA takes seized counterfeit pills and the machines that make them, called pill presses. A pill press can quickly make counterfeit pills, stamping them to look like brand-name prescription drugs.

“Adderall pills, Xanax pills, painkillers. And what it is, is really just fentanyl,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge of the New England Field Division, Brian Boyle. “You could be a pharmacist, you could be a doctor, you look at these pills, you can’t tell the difference.”

Boyle says some of the electric pill presses can produce 5,000-10,000 pills an hour.

“And so, you’re talking, you know, 100,000 pills a day easily,” he said.

The machines can also press fentanyl powder bricks that cartels market with other popular logos, anything that sells. We saw stamps with logos from designer fashions to Boston sports teams.

Agents showed 25 Investigates some 11,000 fake pressed pills seized in Massachusetts in October in one bust, all stamped to look like oxycodone.

“The scary part is the overdoses. People are dying and it could be anybody. It could happen to you. It could happen to me. You know, just one pill can kill now,” Boyle said.

Let that sink in. One pill can kill.

“My son Cameron, age 27, died of a fentanyl poisoning in 2018 when he took an illicit pill that he thought was OxyContin,” said Fiona Firine of New Haven, Connecticut.

The Connecticut mom told Kavanaugh Cameron battled substance abuse disorder since the age of 14 when a doctor prescribed him Oxycontin for a sports-related knee injury. She says for him it was a recurring disease.

“It was St. Patrick’s weekend. He asked somebody he knew and trusted for OxyContin,” Firine said.

But the pill Cameron got from a friend was a fake.

“So, the dosage [of fentanyl] in Cameron’s pill was 11,000 micrograms. What we were told is that’s 9,000 micrograms above the absolute death level,” Firine said. “He didn’t have a prayer. He didn’t have a prayer. If that had been OxyContin, it would have been a slip. But he wouldn’t have lost his life,”

In the last year of his life, she says Cameron found therapy. The night he died, he called his therapist saying he was relapsing and would need to see her soon. He never got that chance. Fiona says the medical examiner told them Cameron was likely gone before his body even hit the floor.

“This can happen to anyone. This can happen to any family. This can happen to any person” Firine said.

The DEA reports in 2021, 107,622 people died from a drug overdose in the United States.

66% of those were attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

In Massachusetts, overdose deaths reached a record high at 2,290 in 2021.

Fentanyl is being produced in record amounts on an international scale, according the DEA. Chemicals to create the fentanyl are coming from China to Mexico where cartels are producing it and then it’s coming to the United States in powder form or already pressed pills.

“They don’t care about killing the population up here. They don’t really care. They’re all for making a profit,” Boyle said. “Every which way you think, to bring it into the country, they’re bringing it. Whether they’re bringing it through trucks, whether they’re shipping in packages… you name it, it’s coming that way.”

Boyle says the problem is pervasive which is why the DEA has been working to raise awareness about the pressed pills.

“I think the biggest message is if you don’t get that pill from a doctor or a licensed pharmacy, then it could kill you,” he said.

Fiona Firine and her family understand that message on a painfully personal level.

“People are looking at it through stigma, through the wall of stigma. So, they’re making this assumption on lifestyle and they’re not understanding that people are not knowing what they’re doing,” she said. “I want them to understand how important it is to have conversations with your children about this.”

Firine says it wasn’t until Cameron’s death that she learned what a pressed pill is.

“This this is an epidemic. You keep telling that story just to try to save others.”

Firine and her family tell their story through their nonprofit ‘For Cameron.’ They work to educate law enforcement, change laws, and they are speaking directly to high schoolers now in Connecticut.

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