How hospitals are being sold fake opioids

Written by By Caitlin Higgins, CNN

Wearing a fake Vicodin mask is probably something you should avoid.

Despite the warnings, nearly a quarter of patients who claim to have been selling fake OxyContin masks at an Atlanta drug store were seen with narcotic patches on their hands, according to the results of a new study.

Highly respected, independent addiction treatment facilities were also recently named as being sources of fake OxyContin fake for patients receiving treatment. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer , Philadelphia’s St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and Philadelphia Behavioral Health were found to be two of the top five sources of fake OxyContin.

Many hospital staff were also found to be among a group of illicit vendors making the widely sold fake drug.

Nationwide, undercover investigations show that businesses nationwide are turning to products like fake fake retinal injections and Percocet to keep workers dulled in pain and tired. Many of these same clients pass counterfeit tabs from homeless people, taking their money, causing a revenue stream of up to $800 million in gross profit.

This profit can mean that staffers are prioritizing their own stash of pills or that they may buy-off street-dealers who hand them counterfeit OxyContin for cash.

CNN spoke with experts about the numbers and their consequences.

How real is fake OxyContin?

Dr. Jonathan Lin of the Cleveland Clinic says that the majority of patients in its hospitals are using prescription drugs after their primary care doctors prescribe fake OxyContin and other types of pain medications. The problem, Dr. Lin says, is that these pills are so potent that they won’t always kill you.

“When I would talk to physicians back in the 80s and 90s, they thought that OxyContin was the deadliest drug in the universe,” Dr. Lin said. “For them, fentanyl was in a way.”

In 2017, the FDA released new fentanyl guidelines to limit the abuse of the drug, and opioids are becoming less prevalent on the black market. But, Dr. Lin says, the practice of mixing oxycodone (OxyContin) with heroin is far from over.

And, as this research shows, the fake OxyContin masking agents are consistently sold at a premium price. If you wanted one of these $20 bogus masks in 2015, you’d have been charged $5 on average, up from $2 in 2014.

“If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, well, it’s not a lifesaver,” Dr. Lin says.

How it works

The medical term for this phenomenon is a condition known as Drug Humiliation Hypokalemia, or DHH.

“The dopamine receptor on the opioid receptor is very weak,” says Dr. Kathleen Szczerba, an addictions and pain expert and associate professor of family medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “They can misfire.”

These misfires may result in more pain, but they’re not meant to hurt. If the brain perceives a pain as greater than the intensity of the opioid, then the brain will turn to a less potent drug. But if the pain is closer to the opioid, then the brain will use the opioid to override the pain. This creates a cycle of drug abuse.

“They are being fooled to believe they are in pain; they are not,” Dr. Szczerba says. “They are not being physically sick, they are not in withdrawal or truly binging.”

For example, a few tears in an OTC pain reliever, like ibuprofen, may indicate pain. But if the addict uses the drug instead of seeking alternative treatment, like counseling, that person could be hurting themselves.

“They are spending money to numb it,” she says. “It makes you feel better, you are sick, you feel sick. You want to escape from it. We know this in law enforcement, we know this in the treatment field, and this is what is happening.”

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