Pill presses, cheap Chinese ingredients fueling fentanyl spike

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ATLANTA — There is a new and urgent warning from the Drug Enforcement Administration about counterfeit pills.

They are pills disguised as pharmaceutical drugs that contain potentially lethal amounts of fentanyl.

Channel 2's Tom Regan found out the pills are a large contributor to the rising number of overdose deaths in Georgia. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is cheap and powerful: a deadly combination.

[READ MORE: Inside the smugglers' trail: How cartels overtook metro Atlanta streets]

Regan discovered some profiting from these dangerous drugs can easily find the tools needed to make the pills online. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin.

To put it another way, consider a pill the size a baby aspirin...

“If you divide that pill into over 300 pieces, one of those pieces can kill you,” Dr. Gaylord Lopez, with the Georgia Poison Center, said.

Illicit fentanyl is often cut into heroin as a cheap, potent filler. But it's now getting pressed into pills made to look like prescription opioids like Percocet or Oxycodone.

After Regan checked online and found multiple sites that sell pill presses, he ordered one. It came a couple of days later from an address in Ohio.

It even included a thank-you note. The DEA says local drug dealers are using pressing devices like the one Regan bought to crank out homemade counterfeit pills.

They order the key ingredient, powered fentanyl, on the dark web from Chinese labs. A single fake pill can sell for $50 on the street.


“Dealers and people who are putting deadly fentanyl into pill presses, they’re making these pills look like their real counterparts," Lopez said.

Two years ago, the Georgia Poison Center took a flurry of calls on a rash of overdoses in middle Georgia, near Macon.

Street pills that looked like Percocet killed five people and sent 30 others to area hospitals.

"A neighbor woke me up around 7:30-8, said something was wrong with my brother, so I jumped out of bed ran out the back door, and the paramedic was already there," Katherin Mattox said in a June 8, 2019, Channel 2 Action News report.

She said her brother, Gregory Mitchell, bought two pills on the street. He thought they were Percocet.

The Army veteran had run out of his doctor-prescribed pain pills. It was a fatal mistake. He died on the way to the hospital.

“Why do you want to kill a person just for a few dollars?" Mitchell’s sister said at the time.

The GBI said since 2015, it's investigated over 450 cases involving fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills. That number is growing.

The overdose tragedy in Macon underscores the deadly danger of fake pills.

"This is really a worst-case scenario. This is the very thing we hoped would not happen," Dineen Kilcrease, with the GBI, said.

A recent report titled “Illegal Pill Presses: An Overlooked Threat to American Patients” says the broad availability of illegal pill presses has created an unprecedented threat to communities.

Lisa Hicks knows all about that threat. Her 24-year-old son died after taking two pills that he believed were Oxycodone. Tests found the pills contained fentanyl.

“It's very, very difficult to handle losing a young child. It's probably the worst pain ever,” Hicks told Regan.