Top U.S. law enforcement officials on Thursday announced the seizure of more than 1.8 million counterfeit pills during a coordinated series of law enforcement raids throughout the country since early August.
"In recent years, we've seen an alarming increase in the number of counterfeit pills containing illicit fentanyl," Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said at a news conference.
Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Anne Milgram said as part of the eight-week operation, DEA and other law enforcement partners made more than 800 arrests, seizing 158 weapons as well as 712 kilos of powdered fentanyl in addition to a myriad of other illicit drugs.
The amount of fentanyl-laced pills seized by the DEA over the past eight weeks is enough to kill 700,000 people, Milgram said.
"We cannot stress enough the danger of these counterfeit pills," Milgram said. "We're seeing these pills being illegally sold in every state in the United States. They are cheap, they are widely available, they can be purchased online and on social media -- so through people's phones, and they're extremely dangerous."
The DEA issued its first public safety alert in six years earlier this week, warning about "unprecedented quantities" of counterfeit pills found in every U.S. state and often containing fentanyl and meth.
Agents have seized more fake pills so far this year than both of the previous two years combined, amounting to a total of 9.5 million, according to the DEA.
"They're made to look nearly identical to real prescription pills," Milgram said. "Their color, their size, their markings are virtually identical to what a real prescription pill would look like."
Social media platforms including Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram have been used to market the counterfeits to teenagers, the officials said.
The pills are often made to resemble real prescription opioid medication like Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Xanax, or stimulants like Adderall, according to the DEA. Most are made in Mexico with China supplying the chemicals.
The DEA made clear in its announcement that legitimate prescriptions filled at a pharmacy are not impacted by this epidemic of fake pills. Only those sold on the black market.
Fentanyl is the primary driver of the significant increases in drug overdose deaths in recent years. More than 93,000 people died of a drug overdose last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.