US Bolsters Post on Fentanyl in Pharmacy Pills Sold in Mexico

Victim's family has tried to get agencies to act since overdose in 2019
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 15, 2023 4:46 PM CDT
Updated Mar 18, 2023 2:45 PM CDT
US Doesn't Warn About Deaths From Pharmacy Pills in Mexico
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador discusses fentanyl during a press conference last month in Mexico City.   (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)
UPDATE Mar 18, 2023 2:45 PM CDT

The State Department has strengthened its cautioning about pharmacies in Mexico selling counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl, warning that the doses can be fatal. The alert was posted Friday, per the AP, mentioning stores for the first time. "Counterfeit pills are readily advertised on social media and can be purchased at small, non-chain pharmacies in Mexico along the border and in tourist areas," the post says. The State Department, which has been pressured to act, cited media reports on the matter in its statement. Officials did not respond to a request for comment about whether any Americans had overdosed or died after consuming the drugs, sometimes bought in Mexico without a prescription.

Mar 15, 2023 4:46 PM CDT

After Brennan Harrell, 29, died of a fentanyl overdose on vacation in Mexico, his parents worked with US federal agencies on the investigation, with the expectation Americans would be warned that some pharmacies there sell counterfeit medications laced with illicit fentanyl. His family didn't want anyone else to suffer a fatal overdose. That was in 2019, meaning, the Los Angeles Times reports, that the Drug Enforcement Administration and State Department knew of the danger for more than three years without taking action. Harrell's case "could have prevented more deaths that have surely occurred since then," said Chelsea Shover, a UCLA researcher, adding, "and yet there wasn't any kind of public information campaign about it."

A Times investigation found that some pharmacies in the northwestern part of the country sell counterfeit prescription pills as legitimate, though they contain deadlier drugs. Pills sold as oxycodone, for example, tested positive for fentanyl, and pills sold as Adderall tested positive for methamphetamine. Harrell and a friend had purchased what appeared to be tablets of Xanax and oxycodone at a drugstore in Cabo San Lucas. The Justice Department has warned that those drugs sold on the street are regularly laced with fentanyl, but there's been no official warning about buying the medications at pharmacies in Mexico. A toxicology report listed fentanyl in Harrell's system, and a chief medical examiner in California alerted the DEA, saying he'd never heard of pills sold by a drugstore being contaminated.

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DEA officials met with Harrell's family for months, eventually telling them it appeared that the cause of death had been a counterfeit pill. An agent told there was a good case—to shut down pharmacies, they understood. Brennan's mother, Mary, lobbied for the US to take action. "If there had been warnings I believe my son would still be alive," she wrote. "Travelers going to Mexico need to be aware of this.” The result: The State Department added wording deep into the country information page on its website. It suggests counterfeit medication can be problematic but has no warning about drugstores. The page just suggests patronizing "reputable establishments." (More fentanyl stories.)

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