Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Law enforcement agents seized more than 1.8 million counterfeit prescription pills laced with fentanyl and arrested 810 people in a nationwide two-month crackdown on the illicit black market drugs officials said are contributing to the nation's overdose crisis.
Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department announced the results of the nationwide law enforcement effort launched Aug. 3 during a press conference on Thursday, saying agents also seized 8,842 pounds of methamphetamines, 1,395 pounds of cocaine and 1,570 pounds of fentanyl powder, enough to make 10 million pills, as well as 158 weapons.
Authorities said the amount of fentanyl-laced pills confiscated during the operation could have killed more than 700,000 Americans.
"Seizures like this along will not solve this problem: we also need the public to know the dangers posed by counterfeit pills," Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco at the Justice Department said.
last year, more than 93,000 people died of overdoses in the United States, the highest number on record, with Opioids being responsible for 75% of those deaths with the primary driver being fentanyl, a synthetic opioid found in most of the confiscated counterfeit pills.
"From small towns, to suburbs to rural counties, no place is immune," she said. "No place in this country is immune from the overdose deaths that are plaguing this nation."
The announcement of the operation was made days after the DEA issued its first public safety alert in six years on Monday warning Americans about the "alarming" increase in these pills that are mass produced by Mexican drug networks using chemicals sourced from China flooding U.S. streets.
The pills, it said, are fashioned to appear identical to prescription drugs such se Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, Adderall, Xanax and others, and are sold online over social media platforms such as Facebook to profit from the opioid epidemic.
"The pervasiveness of synthetic opioids, the low cost and the way criminal drug networks disguise them as legitimate prescription pills really can make them particularly dangerous to public safety," she said.
DEA Administrator Anne Milgram explained that they are not talking about legitimate pills prescribed by a doctor but the drug cartels are pushing and marketing them as if they were "the real thing."
"And they are not," she said. "They are not being prescribed by a legitimate doctor, they're not being filled at a pharmacy."
Monaco said the reason the DEA issued its first alert since 2015 is because they have been seizing counterfeit pills containing deadly doses of drugs at an alarming rate.
According to law enforcement statistics, more than 9.5 million fake pills have been seized by the DEA in the past year, which is more than the number confiscated in the past two years combined. The alert issued this week also said that since 2019 the increase in counterfeit pills containing fentanyl has increased 430%.
Four in 10 counterfeit pills seized, Monaco said, contained a deadly 2-milligram dose of fentanyl, which is up from one in 10 in 2017.
To combat the surge, Monaco said they will be working with Mexico to close these labs while calling on China to stop the misuse of precursor chemicals for illegal drug use.
The DEA has also launched the One Pill Can Kill campaign to inform the public of the dangers of fake prescription pills.
Monaco told reporters that the increase in such pills in the United States is independent from whether there is a surge in migrants attempting to enter the country at the U.S. southern border. Milgram agreed, adding that they are combating a half trillion dollar business that will find a way to make money.
The drug cartels "try their best to get narcotics to flood our streets with dangerous drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamines and they do it through whatever way they can, whether it's the border, the ports, by air, by mail, we've seen every single way the cartels will work to get those drugs here and I think it's really important to understand that is what we're facing," she said.
"We have to do everything we can to stop these organizations from being able to source, manufacture and distribute those drugs," she said.