Special Report: Counterfeit pills fueling Cook County deaths

Opioids are one of the leading causes of death in Cook County.

In 2020, the medical examiner's office saw an alarming increase, with cases up 52 percent. To make matters worse, a recent analysis by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) revealed opioid deaths in Cook County were 15 percent higher than the national average last year.

So what is fueling this increase?


The war on drugs is the primary mission for the DEA. Take one look at the Chicago Field Division's drug vault and you can see they have been busy. But there is one type of drug that really has their attention right now.

"Both nationally and in Chicago, counterfeit pills are up," said Agent Todd Smith.

DEA agents are not chasing multiple counterfeit drugs. There is one pill in particular that is currently a cause for concern.

"They are ingesting the one pill they believe is oxycodone, but in fact it’s a counterfeit pill that contains fentanyl," Smith said. "In some instances, a potentially lethal dose."

Smith is an Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the DEA’s Chicago Field Division. He took FOX 32 inside their drug lab to get an up-close look at these problematic pills.

"If you had just one pill in your hand that was counterfeit and one pill that was a real pill, it would be very difficult to tell the difference," Smith said.

According to the DEA, most counterfeit oxycodone pills contain mostly fillers and two milligrams of fentanyl. It may sound like a small amount, but its affects can be devastating.

"Two milligrams of fentanyl can fit on the cheek of Abraham Lincoln on the penny," Smith said. "If that 2.5 gram penny was pure fentanyl, it’s the potential lethal dose to kill a thousand people."

If drug related deaths due to fentanyl sound familiar, it is because Chicago saw a rash of them in 2006 and then again in 2015. Each time it was fentanyl mixed with heroin.

Now, the problem is fentanyl made to look like oxycodone.

"The perception of taking a pill versus injecting heroin into your arm is more socially acceptable," Smith said. "So for younger people, the susceptibility of taking a counterfeit pill and overdosing is high."

Experts say Mexican drug cartels are making the counterfeit oxycodone and that you are most likely to find it in a social setting -- like a party or hanging out with friends.

"What concerns me the most is the dramatic increase over the past year," said Dr. Monica Roberts.

Dr. Roberts is the Program Director at Symetria Recovery in Warrenville. She says it has become incredible to see the amount of patients who do not know what they are taking.

"Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent. So sometimes, what we end up seeing is that there’s only one time and that’s it. We’ve had patient deaths because of this. So there is no recovery," she said.

So the bottom line is this.

"If you are not aware of where the pill came from, there needs to be a real conversation you may be ingesting a counterfeit pill," Agent Smith said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, here are some resources:

DEA's Community Outreach Section

Operation Prevention

National Institute on Drug Abuse