Democratic lawmakers are pressing the State Department to issue a warning about fentanyl-laced pills sold by Mexican pharmacies to unsuspecting Americans who travel across the border looking for cheaper medication.
Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. David Trone of Maryland pointed to California researchers who determined that northern Mexican drugstores are selling counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine.
The pills are sold mainly to U.S. tourists and made to look like drugs such as oxycodone, percocet and Adderall, according to the team at the University of California, Los Angeles.
A separate investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that 71% of the 17 pills it tested from Mexican drugstores came back positive for more powerful drugs.
“These adulterated drugs place unsuspecting U.S. tourist customers — some of whom are seeking to avoid high pharmaceutical drug pricing in the United States — at risk of overdose and death,” Mr. Markey and Mr. Trone wrote in a recent letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “As an immediate step, the State Department needs to warn Americans traveling to Mexico of the danger they face when purchasing pills from Mexican pharmacies.”
The State Department regularly issues travel advisories to help Americans assess risks in certain locations around the world.
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Concerns about Mexican pharmacies come after four Americans were kidnapped after crossing into Mexico, reportedly for a medical procedure. Two were killed and two returned to the U.S.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid created in the 1960s as a legitimate drug to treat pain in cancer patients and others.
Over the past decade, an illicit and unregulated form has shown up in the U.S. drug supply as Mexican cartels convert precursor chemicals, often from China, into synthetic opioids and mix it with other drugs.
The Biden administration says it is leaning on the Mexican government to crack down on the cartels. Republican lawmakers are pressing for more, with some suggesting the U.S. military must get involved.
Mr. Blinken spoke Monday with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard on Monday.
The pair discussed “U.S.-Mexico security cooperation and joint efforts to disrupt precursor chemicals used to make illicit fentanyl and other synthetic drugs,” the State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday.
Roughly 70,000 of the 107,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. were linked at least in part to fentanyl in 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available.
Fentanyl is increasingly found in fake pills, a danger to unsuspecting young people in the U.S. who want to experiment with drugs or get a specific effect from prescription drugs — though don’t realize the pills contain a deadly substance instead.
The Drug Enforcement Administration said that based on seizure data, six in 10 fake pills that contain fentanyl have a deadly dose.
New research suggests Mexican pharmacies are selling these types of pills right over the counter.
While it’s unusual for sellers of any kind to risk killing their customers, experts say the profit margins and addictive qualities tied to fentanyl, compared with other drugs, are so high that rogue actors are willing to do it.
Mr. Trone’s office pointed to experts who believe Mexican cartels might be using the pharmacies to broaden their consumer base by getting American tourists hooked on fentanyl — even if buyers are expecting a different drug.
The UCLA team examined 40 pharmacies in four cities in northern Mexico.
Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, heroin and/or methamphetamine were sold at 11 pharmacies. Out of 45 pill samples, nine sold as Adderall contained methamphetamine, eight sold as oxycodone had fentanyl and three sold as oxycodone had heroin.
The State Department does have a warning on its Mexico page about the dangers of buying prescription drugs overseas, but it does not mention the fentanyl threat at pharmacies in particular.
“Exercise caution when purchasing medication overseas,” the page says. “Counterfeit medication is common and may prove to be ineffective, the wrong strength, or contain dangerous ingredients. Medication should be purchased in consultation with a medical professional and from reputable establishments.”
Mr. Trone’s office on Tuesday said the warning should be more explicit and pronounced so tourists notice it.
The lawmakers haven’t heard back from the State Department, though the letter was dated March 9 and it typically takes a few weeks to get a response.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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