Study: Counterfeit Pills in Mexican Pharmacies

Fentanyl, Heroin, and Methamphetamine-Based Counterfeit Pills Sold at Tourist-Oriented Pharmacies in Mexico: An Ethnographic and Drug Checking StudyBackground Our ethnographic team has conducted longitudinal research focused on illicit drug markets in Northern Mexico since 2018. In 2021-2022, study participants described the arrival of new, unusually potent tablets sold as ostensibly controlled substances, without a prescription, directly from pharmacies that cater to US tourists. Concurrently, fentanyl- and methamphetamine-based counterfeit prescription drugs have driven escalating overdose death rates in the US, however their presence in Mexico has not been assessed. Aims To characterize the availability of counterfeit and authentic controlled substances at pharmacies in Northern Mexico available to English-speaking tourists without a prescription. Methods We employed an iterative, exploratory, mixed methods design. Longitudinal ethnographic data was used to characterize tourist-oriented micro-neighborhoods and guide the selection of n=40 pharmacies in n=4 cities in Northern Mexico. In each pharmacy, samples of “oxycodone”, “Xanax”, and “Adderall” were sought as single pills, during English-language encounters, after which detailed ethnographic accounts were recorded. We employed immunoassay-based testing strips to check each pill for the presence of fentanyls, benzodiazepines, amphetamines, and methamphetamines. We used Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy to further characterize drug contents. Results Of 40 pharmacies, these controlled substances could be obtained in any form with no prescription at 68.3% and as single pills at 46.3%. Counterfeit pills were obtained at n=11 (26.8%) of pharmacies. Of n=45 samples sold as one-off controlled substances, n=20 were counterfeit including 9 of 11 (81.8%) of samples sold as “Adderall” that contained methamphetamine, and 8 of 27 (29.6%) of samples sold as “Oxycodone” that contained fentanyl, and n=3 ‘Oxycodone’ samples containing heroin. Pharmacies providing counterfeit drugs were uniformly located in tourist-serving micro-neighborhoods, and generally featured English-language advertisements for erectile dysfunction medications and ‘painkillers’. Pharmacy employees occasionally expressed concern about overdose risk and provided harm reduction guidance. Discussion The availability of fentanyl-, heroin-, and methamphetamine-based counterfeit medications in Northern Mexico represents a public health risk, and occurs in the context of 1) the normalization of medical tourism as a response to rising unaffordability of healthcare in the US, 2) plummeting rates of opioid prescription in the US, affecting both chronic pain patients and the availability of legitimate pharmaceuticals on the unregulated market, 3) the rise of fentanyl-based counterfeit opioids as a key driver of the fourth, and deadliest-to-date, wave of the opioid crisis. It is not possible to distinguish counterfeit medications based on appearance, because identically-appearing authentic and counterfeit versions are often sold in close geographic proximity. Nevertheless, US tourist drug consumers may be more trusting of controlled substances purchased directly from pharmacies. Due to Mexico’s limited opioid overdose surveillance infrastructure, the current death rate from these substances remains unknown. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest. ### Funding Statement The authors wish to thank the UCLA Center for AIDS Research under U.S. National Institutes of Health (grant P30AI152501) and the UCLA AIDS Institute for use of the FTIR spectrometer, made possible through generous support from the James B. Pendleton Charitable Trust. CLS was supported by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (grant K01DA050771). AB was supported by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (grant NIDA DP2 DA049295). DGM was supported by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (grant K08DA048163). JRF was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (grant GM008042). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. ### Author Declarations I confirm all relevant ethical guidelines have been followed, and any necessary IRB and/or ethics committee approvals have been obtained. Yes The details of the IRB/oversight body that provided approval or exemption for the research described are given below: Study protocols were approved by the institutional review board at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the United States, and the institutional review board at Prevencasa, A.C, in Baja California, Mexico. I confirm that all necessary patient/participant consent has been obtained and the appropriate institutional forms have been archived, and that any patient/participant/sample identifiers included were not known to anyone (e.g., hospital staff, patients or participants themselves) outside the research group so cannot be used to identify individuals. Yes I understand that all clinical trials and any other prospective interventional studies must be registered with an ICMJE-approved registry, such as I confirm that any such study reported in the manuscript has been registered and the trial registration ID is provided (note: if posting a prospective study registered retrospectively, please provide a statement in the trial ID field explaining why the study was not registered in advance). Yes I have followed all appropriate research reporting guidelines and uploaded the relevant EQUATOR Network research reporting checklist(s) and other pertinent material as supplementary files, if applicable. Yes All data used in the paper are contained in the manuscript's supplement.