Tainted drugs on Mexico border could pose threat to travelers

Recent investigations showed an increase in counterfeit drugs being sold in Mexican pharmacies.

By Molly-Jo TiltonJune 19, 2023 2:22 pm,

Tainted drugs, which have long been a problem for Mexico and U.S. border communities, typically didn’t affect pharmacies or formal dispensaries. But in recent years, the problem has become more widespread, with tainted or mislabeled pills being easily found in popular tourist destinations across the country. 

The Los Angeles Times launched an investigation of tainted drugs and the pharmacies that sell them, revealing that in most cases – especially in towns where people often travel for medical procedures – the counterfeit drugs were not difficult to find. Counterfeits included weaker dosages, opioids laced with fentanyl, and even complete substitutions – like methamphetamine instead of Adderall. 

L.A. Times reporter Keri Blakinger spoke with the Texas Standard about their recent investigation. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: First, can you tell us a little bit about what kinds of drugs were found and and where? 

Keri Blakinger: So we focused our testing on opioids and ADD/ADHD medications, specifically Percocet and Adderall, and that was based on tips that we’d received. So what we did is we went into pharmacies, asked for Percocet or Adderall over the counter and purchased these pills in stores that were in areas frequented by tourists. We started with Tijuana and Los Cabos, and we later expanded to testing in other parts of the country.

And what we found was that overall, 50% of the pills that we tested were fake. And specifically they were instead more dangerous, more powerful drugs – things like fentanyl and meth. 

Whoa. Fentanyl and meth. You’ve lived in Texas, spent a lot of time reporting here – any reason to think that this is a localized problem for Baja California, or could it be happening along the Texas border as well? 

It is happening along the Texas border. We started our testing in Baja California, but one of the next places we went was Nuevo Progreso, which is sort of a destination for medical tourism and is obviously right across from the McAllen area. And we also later went towards, you know, the Cancun area. We were in Playa del Carmen and Cozumel and then Tulum, and then we also went to Puerto Vallarta.

So this is all over, but we did specifically go to the Texas border. And one of the interesting things that we found there was that was the first place that we found a sealed bottle where it tested positive for something else. We bought a bottle of Percocet in Nuevo Progreso, tested it, and it was fentanyl.

So what do tourists need to know before they travel to Mexico, especially if they’re traveling for medical procedures? 

We don’t have any cause to think that fentanyl is in other non-opioid medications. But I think that one of the things to keep in mind is that if it’s something that they’re not supposed to sell over the counter, like that’s a red flag right there. Opioids are not actually supposed to be sold over the counter without a prescription, and they’re fairly difficult to get with a prescription in Mexico.

So if you’re getting it over the counter, that’s a red flag. If they’re selling them to you one pill at a time, that’s a red flag. If the bottle is in English and it has, you know, American serial numbers on it, that’s also a red flag.

I think the safest thing to do is to stick to major pharmacy chains, only purchase pills that are in bottles or blister packs and, you know, bring test strips. And I mean, the best thing to do is probably get a prescription from a doctor. But for people that aren’t going to do that, those are some of the other harm reduction steps that you can take. 

How much of a risk do you consider this posing to everyday visitors to Mexico? 

You know, I think that there are a lot of people that are going to Mexico for prescriptions that are not this powerful. So I think that maybe your average person is not going for Percocet, but I think that many of the people that might go get Percocet there would just be, for instance, I don’t know, elderly folks; they might be people that are traveling and just have a headache or some sort of pain and decide they they want some minor painkiller. So these might be people who are really not expecting it and don’t have any sort of tolerance for stronger drugs.

The thing that I actually think is really concerning that hasn’t gotten as much traction in our reporting is the fake Adderall, because given the Adderall shortage in the U.S., that really increases the odds that people will go to Mexico in search of Adderall – not just because it’s cheaper or anything, but because it’s simply not available right now in many places in the U.S. And when they instead get meth, they may not be prepared for that.

There’s also no control over the dosing. And if you’re getting drug tested for work or probation, like, you’ll fail a drug test if you’ve gotten pills that are simply not what they say they are. 

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