The DEA issued a rare public safety alert, the first in six years, warning of a recent flood of deadly fentanyl-laced pills that cartels are pushing through social media apps.

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram hosted a news conference Thursday in Arlington, Virginia, addressing a surge of deadly fake prescription pills being sold on social media and e-commerce platforms and what law enforcement has discovered in its investigations.

Milgram began the announcement with an anecdote about a fatality that took the life of a high school student who bought the pill using Snapchat.

“On a Monday in May 2021, the parents of a 15-year-old high school freshman found their son in his bedroom in Idaho,” she said. “He wasn’t breathing and despite starting CPR right away and calling for help, their son died of a fentanyl overdose. His death was caused by one pill he purchased on Snapchat. A pill he thought was a prescription oxycodone. It looked like a prescription oxycodone pill but it was not. It was actually a fake pill containing a deadly dose of fentanyl. This kind of tragedy shows one pill can kill, and it is happening every single day in countless communities across the United States. The DEA’s investigations show these tragic deaths are not accidents.”

The DEA said the overdose deaths are directly caused by Mexican drug cartels that are flooding the United States with millions of fake pills with ton of quantities of fentanyl powder, fueling an unprecedented opioid epidemic.

The Mexican drug networks get chemicals largely from China, and then mass produce the pills in industrial labs in Mexico.

“And then they pump this poison into the United States, and they are killing tens of thousands of Americans,” Milgram said.

The counterfeit pills appear to be oxycodone, Percocet, Vicodin, Xanax and Adderall.

Over the past year, 64,000 overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids, predominantly fentanyl, according to DEA statistics. In combating this epidemic, the DEA has seized an unprecedented amount of fentanyl, Milgram stated.

“This is an existential threat to our communities, bringing harm and violence and shattering families,” Milgram said. “The amount of fentanyl the DEA and our law enforcement partners have seized this year is enough to kill every single American. What is equally troubling is the cartels have harnessed the perfect drug delivery tool: social media.”

Apps including Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube and more were among the social media platforms that investigators have found as means of distribution.

Following the 15-year-old’s death in Idaho, the DEA worked with state and local partners to trace the Snapchat sale of the fake pill to the drug trafficker.

“Investigations also revealed this criminal network distributed hundreds of thousands of fake pills using social media, primarily Snapchat, to push their drugs to unsuspecting Americans like the 15-year-old who lost his life,” Milgram said.

She said another member of the same criminal network tried to use Snapchat to sell guns so he could buy more fentanyl pills with the proceeds of the gun sales. In the Idaho case, 1,500 pills and 20 firearms were seized.

DEA investigations then determined these criminal organizations are tied to Mexican drug networks.

“This investigation is an example of what we are seeing across the country,” Milgram said. “As these criminal drug networks flood our country with fentanyl, overdose deaths have skyrocketed. Last month the Centers for Disease Control revealed we have lost a staggering 100,000 lives through drug overdose this past year. These are our family members our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues and our classmates. Lives that are needlessly taken — one five every five minutes.”

This past Tuesday, the DEA completed a public safety search to target the most dangerous drug traffickers and networks. The agency said 76 of the investigations involved criminal drug activity on Facebook, Facebook messenger, Snapchat, Instargram, TikTok, YouTube and other social media platforms.

“They target people of all ages: a curious teenager ordering a pill online, a college student trying a pill from a friend, an elderly neighbor searching online for a pain killer,” Milgram said. “This is why DEA took the unusual step of issuing a public safety alert for the first time in over six years.”

Between Sept. 29 and Dec. 14, the DEA seized 8.4 million fake pills, more than 5,400 pounds of meth and hundreds pounds each of cocaine, heroin and marijuana. A total of 776 people were arrested and agents seized 288 firearms connected to the drug seizures.

More than 20,400,000 fake pills; 15,000 pounds of fentanyl powder; 179,000 pounds of meth and 1,561 weapons have been seized in total this year, the DEA reported.

“This record amount of counterfeit pills seized by the DEA is chilling,” Milgram said. “Just two days ago, DEA agents in Arizona seized approximately 1.7 million pills and 1,300 pounds of fentanyl in a single operation. I am confident the DEA agents and task force officers prevented a significant number of overdoses and overdose deaths with just that seizure alone.”

The DEA called upon the public to help combat the epidemic by being aware of the dangers online and only taking medications prescribed and filled by a licensed pharmacist. The alert does not apply to legitimate pharmaceutical medications prescribed and dispensed by medical professionals and licensed pharmacists.

“Spread the word that one pill can kill,” Milgram said. “Please talk to your family members and friends about the danger of buying drugs online and know the DEA remains relentless in our commitment of taking down the criminal drug networks that threaten the health and safety of our communities.”
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