(CNN) — Drug traffickers are becoming more advanced and more daring. Some are even importing industrial pill presses to pump out highly dangerous pills that are almost impossible to tell from real prescription drugs. And these machines are coming into the country at record highs.
People all over the country are dying from counterfeit pills made with a dangerous synthetic drug called fentanyl, a drug that’s 25 to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
“People have died from ingesting what they think is a legitimate painkiller and it’s a counterfeit pill that contains fentanyl,” said Special Agent John Martin of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
The death of pop-icon Prince could turn out to be the most famous case of counterfeit pills. Police reportedly found mislabeled pills laced with fentanyl in his home and the drug was found in his system.
Drug dealers are using special machines to make those pills, turning synthetic powder into something that looks just like prescription meds.
“If you have counterfeit pills, you can’t make them without pill presses,” Martin said.
Pill presses are simply bought off the internet and most come from China. The machines make pills so deceivingly accurate, even veteran agents have trouble telling the difference.
The pill presses themselves are not illegal, but buying them without proper registration is. The number of illegal imports has spiked 19-fold since 2011.
At America’s largest seaport in Long Beach, California, finding pill presses among millions of tons of goods is no small challenge. One container is processed every 7.8 seconds.
Cheryl Davies, Assistant Port Director of LAX, Customs and Border Protection, says “we see a variety of machines. They range from little manual machines that you can make one or two at a time all the way up to machines that can generate 170,000 per minute, huge, industrial-sized machines.
“With the increase in overdoses we’re seeing in the last couple years, I think these types of interceptions are extremely important,” she said. “They have a lot of impact on our communities.”
The ones they don’t catch, end up in places like Lubbock, Texas, where a police raid turns up a table-top pill press and nearly 7 pounds of synthetic fentanyl. It’s so dangerous even to touch that agents have to get into full HAZMAT gear.
Martin says pill presses have made it easier for drug dealers to make millions of dollars out of their homes. “They’re going to get on the dark net. They’ll order fentanyl or some type of fentanyl-related compound. It usually comes from China. The setup is relatively cheap.”
For $5,000-$6,000, Martin says someone could potentially sell $10 million of fake — and deadly — pills.
“It’s almost like playing Russian roulette,” he said. “It’s extremely dangerous.”