Fake fentanyl pill accused on trial in Salt Lake City

The trial of a man accused of masterminding the sale counterfeit pills laced with the potent opioid analgesic fentanyl started this week in the US.

Prosecutors say Aaron Michael Shamo was a key figure in an illicit trade in fake pills that mimicked prescription painkillers but contained fentanyl rather than the expected active ingredients.

Because it is so potent, fentanyl is much more likely to cause overdose and death, and widespread use in fake versions of opioids and other medicines prone to abuse such as benzodiazepines is believed to be a key driver of the opioid epidemic affecting the US and other countries around the world.

Shamo is accused of importing fentanyl from China and pressing it into counterfeit pills that were sold via online black markets. It was a multimillion-dollar operation that prosecutors claim resulted in at least one death from overdose. In that 2016 case, a 21-year-old California man – known only by the initials R.K. – died after snorting a fentanyl pill that had been made to look like oxycodone.

The defence recognises Shamo was involved in the ring peddling the drugs, but claims a learning disability and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) means it is not feasible he was leading the operation.

A raid on his home in Cottonwood Heights, Salt Lake City, uncovered a pill press, thousands of pills including oxycodone and Xanax counterfeits, and more than $1m in cash.

The Department of Justice says that Shamo and accomplice Drew Wilson Crandall – an Australian national - purchased pill presses, dies and stamps to mark pills so the markings would match those of legitimate pharmaceutical drugs, and inert pill ingredients, such as binding agents and colours.

“Some items were purchased legally and others, such as fentanyl and alprazolam, were imported into the US illegally, including from China,” says the DoJ.

The falsified medicines were sold on the dark net using their storefront, Pharma-Master, at a significant profit. Once sold, Shamo and Crandall used various co-conspirators to package the pills and ship them to customers, it is alleged.

Crandall pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and alprazolam and money laundering. He made a plea deal admitting his role in the illicit ring but has not yet been sentenced.

Shamo is charged with 13 counts, including drug importation, money laundering, and continuing criminal enterprise, and if convicted could face a life sentence.

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