On August 25, the New York Office of Public Safety held a briefing ahead of International Overdose Awareness Day. It used some of that time to circulate the as-yet unsubstantiated claim that counterfeit Adderall pills commonly contain fentanyl.
“Powdered fentanyl is often added to other drugs like heroin, cocaine, or even we’re seeing Adderall and other prescription drugs, or things that look like prescription drugs, ending up with fentanyl in it,” said Chief of Operations Justin Meyers.
The Drug Enforcement Administration will occasionally say so directly, for the most part it’s content to just very, very strongly imply that counterfeit Adderall tablets contain fentanyl. Since rolling out its One Pill Can Kill campaign in 2021, the DEA has been stating that most of the Mexican counterfeit pills seized contain fentanyl, and that Adderall is among the prescription medications being counterfeited.
Whenever anything more specific emerges, it’s always that fentanyl is in the pills being sold as Percocet or other opioid analgesics. The only substance that the DEA ever states it’s identified in fake Adderall pills is meth, except for the very occasional mention of MDMA. No fentanyl, but that hasn’t stopped the claims from spreading.
“We are seeing people who think they’re taking Adderall or Xanax, and again, laced with fentanyl,” Vice President Kamala Harris told state attorneys general in July. “And results in the outcomes that we are seeing in terms of the massive number of fatalities.”
In May 2022, two students at Ohio State University died after ingesting what school administrators implied was fentanyl-adulterated counterfeit Adderall. In a statement that’s since been removed, they referenced a health department drug safety alert that also implied the existence of such pills without quite saying so.
“This morning Columbus Public Health shared an alert about fake Adderall pills, which appear to contain fentanyl, causing an increase in overdoses and hospitalization,” stated DEA initiative Campus Drug Prevention in response to the deaths.
Many news outlets repeated the claim uncritically. Others, like the New York Times, noted somewhere in the middle of the story that the available information didn’t quite add up to the deaths being caused by fentanyl sold as Adderall, while still beginning the story like this: “The police said two Ohio State University students died in apparent drug overdoses this week as health officials warned that fake Adderall pills could contain fentanyl.”
In June, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the students’ cause of death was listed as fentanyl-involved overdose, and Adderall wasn’t mentioned. But city governments were citing the news stories to warn that fake Adderall was “frequently laced with fentanyl,” and of course law enforcement at all levels kept the narrative in circulation, too.
These days it’s common for local governments to make the claim without further vetting. It pops up in fentanyl resource guides and recovery resource guides. It’s circulated by state departments of education; local opioid task forces; health department fact sheets; press releases for National Fentanyl Awareness Day.
House representatives cited the Ohio deaths as the basis for legislation proposing increased penalties for selling illicit drugs. Senators warned of an increase in “pills intended to look like Adderall and Percocet that are laced with highly addictive fentanyl,” while calling on the DEA to do something.
The DEA repeatedly tells the public that the only safe medications are those that come from a pharmacy, but never in the same breath as the national ADHD medication shortage that we’ve now been in for a year. This latest shortage doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. What does it expect people to do?
The DEA has never come out and announced that it’s found fentanyl in pills sold as Adderall. If it had, that data would be plastered up and down the internet. At the moment, the only thing it’s accomplishing by inviting people to assume that counterfeit Adderall is full of fentanyl is to make them afraid of Adderall across the board.
None of the headlines and county fact sheets are trying to be prophetic, but fentanyl is going to show up in counterfeit Adderall sooner or later. The longer the DEA continues to exist the more chaotic the US drug supply will continue to become, and fentanyl has already begun finding its way into some unregulated drugs by accident. Plus, the counterfeit Adderall supply is meth-based; fentanyl isn’t in every community’s meth supply, but it is in some.
“Fake Adderall®, specifically counterfeit Adderall® that contains illicitly manufactured fentanyl, is on the rise and it’s causing accidental overdoses among teens,” states the Kloxxado website. “If you have been seeing headlines about opioid overdoses on college campuses involving counterfeit medication, this might be why. Is it something you should be concerned about? Let’s look at some facts.”