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March 13, 2023

Federal lawmakers call for travel advisory about fentanyl in pills at Mexican pharmacies

Credit: Los Angeles Times

“Congressional lawmakers are calling on the State Department to issue a travel advisory warning Americans that some Mexican pharmacies are passing off counterfeit pills made of fentanyl and methamphetamine as legitimate pharmaceuticals.

U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) sent a letter Friday to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken urging the department to immediately “warn Americans traveling to Mexico of the danger they face when purchasing pills from Mexican pharmacies.”

Some pharmacies in Cabo San Lucas are selling prescription pills laced with illicit substances.
Some pharmacies in Cabo San Lucas are selling counterfeit prescription pills laced with illicit substances and passing them off as legitimate pharmaceuticals.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In explaining the need for such a high-profile warning, the letter repeatedly cited an investigation by the Los Angeles Times as well as a study by UCLA researchers — both of which found dangerous counterfeit pills being sold over the counter at pharmacies in northwestern Mexico.

“U.S. tourists who unwittingly purchase counterfeit pills from Mexican pharmacies — both with and without a prescription, according to the Los Angeles Times — face deadly risks from medications that have effectively been poisoned,” the letter said.

A State Deptartment spokesperson said in an email that the agency does “not comment on Congressional correspondences.” The department did not answer questions about the letter or whether it plans to issue a travel advisory.

Markey and Trone sent their letter one day before the Times published a new investigation detailing the final hours in the life of Brennan Harrell, a 29-year-old California man who overdosed and died in 2019 after consuming fentanyl-tainted pills purchased at a pharmacy in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Harrell’s parents have fought unsuccessfully for more than three years for the State Department to issue a prominently placed warning about the dangers of Mexican pharmacies.

The risks of traveling to Mexico for its booming “medical tourism” industry came into sharp relief last week after four Americans were kidnapped in Matamoros, a cartel-plagued Mexican border town. Officials later said the travelers may have been victims of mistaken identity after the attackers thought their van was transporting rival gangsters.

A pill is on a piece of paper.
Testing on an Adderall pill in Cabo San Lucas came back positive for an illicit substance.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The incident sparked international tensions, as Republican lawmakers in the U.S. suggested sending troops across the border, while the president of Mexico blamed the violence on America’s appetite for illegal drugs.

“We are very sorry for what is happening in the United States, but why don’t they attend to the problem?” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said last week. “Here we do not produce fentanyl, and we do not consume fentanyl,” he said, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

The Gulf cartel has since condemned the violence, but not until after two of the kidnapped American travelers were killed. One of the two survivors — who have both returned to the U.S. since the harrowing ordeal — was in Mexico for a tummy tuck, one of the nearly 1 million U.S. citizens who seek medical procedures in the country each year.

The high cost of prescription drugs in the U.S. has driven a lucrative Mexican pharmaceutical market that has seen some pharmacies selling dangerous, fake medications to oblivious visitors, as The Times reported last month.

“These adulterated drugs place unsuspecting U.S. tourist customers — some of whom are seeking to avoid high pharmaceutical drug pricing in the United States — at risk of overdose and death,” Markey and Trone wrote to Blinken. Markey was a member of the U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking, and Trone was its co-chair.

“The Los Angeles Times investigation found that 71% of the pills their investigators purchased from Mexican pharmacies were contaminated with powerful drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine.”

Travel advisories are public warnings issued by the State Department to inform Americans traveling abroad about risks they could face while visiting certain countries or locations. It’s imperative that one be issued about Mexican pharmacies selling fake, tainted pills “as an immediate step,” Markey and Trone wrote in their joint letter.

The front of a pharmacy in Mexico.
Some pharmacies in Cabo San Lucas are selling counterfeit prescription pills laced with illicit substances and passing them off as legitimate pharmaceuticals.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
“The State Department, through the travel advisories it issues, plays an important role in protecting the health and safety of Americans traveling abroad,” the letter said.

Steffanie Strathdee, a distinguished professor of medicine at UC San Diego and co-author of the UCLA-led study, said an advisory is not enough.

“My view is it’s a Band-Aid,” she said. “It’s not going to solve the problem, though it may help some people be more wary — as long as that’s not the only thing that’s done.”