The U.S. is going into its second year of a shortage of Adderall, a medication often prescribed to people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Millions of people are struggling to fill their prescriptions, and some Mexican pharmacies appear to offer a solution, selling the orange pill over the counter in sealed bottles bearing the names and logos of well-known pharmaceutical companies.
The problem? Many of pills are fake. Some contain appetite suppressants or caffeine. Others contain methamphetamine.
Keri Blakinger, who investigated this issue for the LA Times, joined the Texas Standard to share more.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: We last spoke with you in June when the Times was reporting on this issue, but now it seems like the problems are more widespread than originally thought. What’s your sense of the scope at this point?
Keri Blakinger: I think it’s hard to sort of definitively say the scope because obviously any testing that we’re doing is limited. But what we did notice this time around is that it definitely seems more sophisticated.
And when I say more sophisticated, I mean a few different things. We have more different medications that are being passed off as Adderall. And also the really striking thing has been that the same sealed counterfeit bottles were available in multiple different stores and different chains, which would seem to indicate some sort of more systematic effort to counterfeit these substances.
I was struck by your description of these fake pill bottles and the detail that goes into them. Can you describe some of these bottles that you looked at and what they do to make them look legitimate?
Yeah, it was really surprising. They were much better fakes than we’ve seen in some of our past trips. Two of the really common ones were passed off as Sun Pharmaceuticals and Teva Pharmaceuticals, both of which are companies that actually make Adderall that you would buy in the U.S.
They look pretty normal – they’re white bottles with stickers on them that, you know, say all of the correct information for something that would be sold in the U.S. And that’s kind of the red flag. They have drug control numbers from the U.S., and the the words are often in English. So they might look legitimate to someone who’s used to seeing these things in the U.S. But that is not what a medication should look like in Mexico.
But the one that was the most elaborate fake was the fake Vyvanse, which was to me more surprising because that has been in the past legally available in Mexico. So it was more surprising to me to see that one faked. That one had little holographic anti-tamper stickers on the outside of the packaging, and it had the the full box that the bottle of medication should come in. And it had the little informational packet, and it was all in Spanish.
It had all of the right information in terms of like the factory the drug was made out of; it even had a lot number on it. I did actually reach out to the pharmaceutical company and ask them if this lot number corresponded to anything they’d ever made, and they said it didn’t. But most consumers aren’t going to do that. If you buy a medication that looks legitimate, you’re not calling the pharmaceutical company.
» GET MORE NEWS FROM AROUND THE STATE: Sign up for Texas Standard’s weekly newsletters
But there are a couple of things that are really concerning here. No. 1, we have heard the stories of people struggling to fill a prescription. They’re concerned about, for instance, their children not having the prescription that their doctor has recommended. And so they might cross the border to try to go to a pharmacy in Mexico.
But then there’s the flipside. How are they getting to those pharmacies in the first place? And to what extent has adulterated formulations corrupted the entire distribution chain, maybe without regard to borders? I mean, do we even know where this is entering that chain?
There’s no indication that this is happening in the U.S. We did some limited testing on medications in the U.S. and did not find anything amiss. And that would be, I think, a lot more surprising, partly because in the U.S., I mean, I’ve never found any place that you can just illegally walk into a pharmacy and purchase these medications over the counter.
In Mexico what we found was time and again that there are certain independent pharmacies and regional chains at which you can walk in, ask for this medication, and they will simply hand it to you over the counter, which is not legal. And obviously, it seems that this is likely to be connected to cartel activity, which there’s no indication that that has infiltrated American pharmaceutical distribution chains.
For those who are desperate to find these ADHD medications, what’s the bottom line? What’s the takeaway for folks hearing about this for the first time?
Well, I think the main thing is that I personally wouldn’t be purchasing narcotic medications of any kind in Mexico. All of the testing that we did, the fakes were limited to narcotics, meaning opioid painkillers and ADHD stimulant medications.