A few lines in a Senate appropriations proposal could force U.S. officials to confront a deadly threat they ignored for years: counterfeit painkillers laced with fentanyl sold in pharmacies in Mexico.
If approved, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken would have 90 days to draft a report that, for the first time, would reveal key details about overdoses caused by fake pills sold in Mexican pharmacies.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, added the relevant language to a U.S. Senate report that guides agencies on how to spend money appropriated in legislation for State Department operations and foreign relations.
The appropriations bill itself would allocate $125 million to fund efforts to stop the global trafficking of synthetic drugs, including fentanyl, “through diplomatic engagement, law enforcement cooperation and capacity building,” according to a committee summary.
It would also require the State Department to appoint an “anti-fentanyl coordinator.” The bill passed the committee but has not yet been approved by the full Senate.
The bill and report were presented in July, a month after a Los Angeles Times investigation demonstrated how widespread the problem of pharmacies selling counterfeit and contaminated pills is in Mexico. Times reporters tested dozens of pills purchased at pharmacies across the country and found that more than half were counterfeits containing powerful narcotics such as fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Shortly after a Times report in February showed that counterfeit and contaminated pills were common in pharmacies in three cities in Baja California and Baja California Sur, the State Department issued an extensive travel warning. In the months since that initial Times report, authorities in Mexico have audited, raided or shut down more than 150 pharmacies across the country.
Reed said she first learned about the problem earlier this year from Celia and Terry Harms, a Rhode Island couple who shared their story on a Times report in April. The Harms’ 29-year-old son, Jonathan, died in 2017 after taking a counterfeit pill he bought at a Cancun pharmacy. The store passed off tablets made from illicit fentanyl as the legitimate painkillers Jonathan needed to treat his severe migraines.
Pharmacies south of the border have long been known for selling a wide range of over-the-counter medications, including many that would require a prescription in the United States. Until earlier this year, experts generally believed those pills were what store owners said they were.
But the Times report has cast doubt on that assumption, finding that about a third of the opioid painkillers the journalists tested tested positive for fentanyl and 80% of the Adderall they tested tested positive for methamphetamine or, in one case, MDMA the drug part commonly known as ecstasy.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration and the State Department They have known about the issue since at least 2019, when a Ventura County couple informed them of the death of their own 29-year-old son after taking a fentanyl-tainted pill purchased at a Cabo San Lucas pharmacy. But for years, neither agency warned the public about the deadly risks.
“I included language in the Senate version of the State Appropriations, Foreign Operations and Related Agencies bill,” Reed, the majority member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said by email. «I would ensure that the Secretary of State provides Congress with a report on the extent of the problem posed by counterfeit prescription drugs and its potential solutions.»
Reed included the language in a dedicated subsection of the senate report that accompanies the bill, which allocates money that finances the activities of the State Department, among other priorities. The Senate report will effectively have the weight of law if the bill is enacted.
Within 90 days, Blinken will have to submit a report to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The document must include three things: information on all overdoses and overdose deaths of U.S. citizens from counterfeit prescription pills purchased in Mexico in the past seven years that the State Department is aware of; an assessment of how involved drug cartels are in the distribution of those counterfeit medications; and “recommendations on how U.S. citizens can stay safe from the threat of counterfeit prescription drugs while traveling abroad.”
Drug market experts say cartels are likely the source of the pills, although it is not always clear whether pharmacy workers know when they are selling counterfeits.
Still, Reed said, the proposal will help keep travelers safe.
«We need to do everything we can to keep Americans traveling abroad informed and aware of threats like this, including health alerts,» he said. «We hope this reporting requirement will raise awareness and warn others.»
The Senate report also includes separate language calling on the State Department to work with authorities in Mexico and other countries “to improve the detection of synthetic drugs and precursor chemicals, including counterfeit pills, in local pharmaceutical supply chains, and to address the growing presence of criminal networks.”
Addiction experts, including UCLA researcher Chelsea Shover, welcomed the prospect of more data on the number of overdoses, although they raised questions about how well those numbers have been tracked.
«Having this data would be an important step in understanding the scope of this problem,» said Shover, co-author of a paper this year that documents the problem based on tests conducted in four cities in northern Mexico.
«I don’t think it’s possible to get a really precise number,» he added, «but a better idea would be helpful because quantifying a problem is one step toward addressing it.»
But for the Harms family and others who have lost loved ones to this deadly phenomenon, the proposed changes come several years late. Still, Celia Harms says she is “overwhelmed with gratitude” for Reed and his efforts to address the issue.
“The LA Times articles I sent [Reed] and our story about Jonny definitely shaped the funding of these legislative efforts,” he said, adding that “I can hardly contain my hope for meaningful change. “I know there is a long way to go (passing the Senate and the House), but hopefully fentanyl is a bipartisan issue.”