FL law designed to combat addiction may be fueling counterfeit pill market

TAMPA — Doctors are prescribing fewer pain pills for patients because of a new Florida law.

The law is designed to combat addiction, but the I-Team has learned some fear it may be helping fuel a black market of potentially deadly counterfeit pills.

“Feeding the powder, the punch goes to the metal die,” says a man narrating an instructional video in broken English on a Chinese commerce site.

He shows how easy it is to use a pill press machine, which can be purchased online for a few thousand dollars.  

“It’s definitely on our radar,” said DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Mike Furgason, who works in the Tampa District Office.

The DEA says drug dealers use pill presses, along with fentanyl bought on the dark web, to make counterfeit versions of popular prescription narcotics.

“If a pill's worth $80 and you sell 10,000 pills, you just made quite a bit of money,” said Furgason.

The DEA estimates that a kilogram of fentanyl purchased for $5,000 can be used to manufacture $10 million worth of counterfeit pills.  

“That's insane to me that it's that easily accessible to people,” said Betty Sears, when we showed her an ad for a pill press online.

Sears and Chauni Cottrell of Manatee County are recovering addicts who participate in the High on Jesus, non-profit drug recovery program.

When he was using, Chauni bought pain pills on the street.

“I knew what I was getting. The FDA had approved these. They were made by a pharmaceutical company,” said Chauni. 

Justin Halas is the founder of High on Jesus.

“We could probably walk right out here and find some within 100 yards of this place,” Halas said. “It’s everywhere.”  

Custom molds also sold online enable counterfeiters to make exact copies of legitimate pills.    

“You would have no clue until you actually did it,” said Halas.

“It had an M on the top, a 30 on the bottom,” said Sears, describing a pill her friend bought on the street and took.

Her friend recently overdosed on counterfeit Oxycodone made with fentanyl.  

“Her heart was beating really fast, she was driving, and she started having hallucinations,” Sears said. “It's killing people. all you need is just granules of it to die. “

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin.

It 's what killed rock star Prince and more than 19,000 other Americans that same year.  

Betty was nearly one of them.  

She overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl.

“I died for six minutes. I was at the hospital and they brought me back, thank God. I was one of the lucky ones that made it through it,” she said.

Nine people died in Pinellas County in 2016 after taking counterfeit Xanax made from fentanyl.  

Justin believes recent opiate prescribing restrictions, which are aimed at curbing opiate usage, will force more people to buy drugs on the street.  

“Obviously, they had to do something about it, so they had to make a move, but unfortunately, that made this go out of control as well,” Halas said.

He encourages people who need help with drug problems to reach out to his organization at www.highonjesus.org

Since there's no guarantee a pill borrowed from a friend or bought on the street is what it's supposed to be, Betty has this advice.

“Don't take a pill unless your doctor prescribes it to you,” she said.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at adam@abcactionnews.com

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