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Prince might have been a casualty of a counterfeit pill problem sweeping the nation

Prince in 2015. (Matt Sayles/Invision via AP)
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When the autopsy report for Prince surfaced in June, it became clear that the singer died from a lethal dose of a powerful opioid called fentanyl. Now investigators have found reason to believe that the pop icon didn’t know what he was taking.

During a search of Prince’s Minnesota estate after his death in April, authorities found an Aleve bottle filled with two dozen pills. The pills tested positive for fentanyl, a drug that can be up to 100 times as powerful as morphine. But they weren’t labeled as such: The Associated Press reports that the pills were marked “Watson 385.” That’s a label found on a generic painkiller that contains acetaminophen and hydrocodone — the ingredients of many commonly prescribed painkillers, including Vicodin.

[Prince, mysterious, inventive chameleon of music, dies at 57]

So, on the surface, the pills looked to be standard painkillers for moderate to severe pain. In reality, they contained a drug so powerful that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it a “threat to public health and safety.”

While it’s still unclear whether those particular pills caused Prince’s death, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the discovery is prompting investigators to lean toward the theory that Prince did not know that the pills he took contained fentanyl. He might have been a casualty of a counterfeit pill scheme that authorities say is sweeping the nation and exacerbating the opioid-addiction crisis.

Pop icon Prince passed away on April 21 at his home in Chanahassen, Minn., at the age of 57. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Fentanyl, when properly prescribed by a doctor, is a drug approved for managing severe chronic pain. As the use of heroin has boomed, so, too, has illegal manufacturing of fentanyl, which is 25 to 50 times as strong. This illegal fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs, then sold in highly potent forms, such as pills.

Just like the pills found at Prince’s home, the fentanyl-filled pills that the Drug Enforcement Administration has been finding look just like run-of-the-mill prescription pills.

“The counterfeit pills often closely resemble the authentic medications they were designed to mimic, and the presence of fentanyl is only detected upon laboratory analysis,” a DEA report warned last month.

Authorities believe the illegally manufactured fentanyl is being produced in China, then sold to drug traffickers in the United States, Canada and Mexico. A kilogram of fentanyl powder costs a drug trafficker only a few thousand dollars. Using pill presses (which are easily purchased online), they can turn that one kilogram of fentanyl into more than 600,000 pills. At $10 a pop, that means profits of millions for the traffickers.

They sell the pills to people looking for painkillers, who often have no idea what they’re about to take.

The scheme is similar to a 2006 crisis, when fentanyl was appearing in heroin and killing unsuspecting users. That outbreak tapered off when the Mexican laboratory where the fentanyl-laced heroin was being manufactured was shut down. Now, the ability to pump fentanyl into pills — which are far more attractive to more casual drug users — has led to a crisis far more dangerous.

As investigators work to find out how the fentanyl-laced pills came to be in Prince’s possession, the DEA is warning: Overdoses and deaths from counterfeit drugs containing fentanyl are only going to increase.

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