Fake Xanax operator gets 10-year jail term

The mastermind behind a US operation that manufactured more than 160,000 counterfeit anxiety pills has been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.

David Beckford, 28, of Oakland California, had previously entered a guilty plea in November last year when he admitted his part in the almost two-year scheme to import controlled substances from China and other foreign sources with the intention of making fake Xanax pills at locations in north California.

He also admitted he obtained manufacturing equipment, including a pill press, between January 2014 and December 2015.

Beckford, who also admitted he wired money to China and other foreign countries to pay for the drug-making materials, was found to have manufactured 161,474 counterfeit pills, which he planned to distribute.

"Mr Beckford's sentence reflects the seriousness of this crime," said Michael Batdorf, Special Agent in Charge, IRS-Criminal Investigation. "The defendant was the mastermind of this elaborate scheme. He found international suppliers through the internet and solicited others, including his girlfriend, to handle the wire transfer payments of funds to the overseas suppliers."

The investigation and subsequent sentence has been heralded as an exemplar of the US effort to combat fake drugs and prescription pill abuse, with Batdorf emphasising the commitment to financially disrupting and dismantling narcotics trafficking organisations.

Prescription pill abuse has become an issue in the US, where it has been described as a national epidemic. Counterfeiters have taken advantage of the demand for addictive prescription drugs such as painkillers and anxiety meds, lacing the fakes with often dangerous chemicals.

The opioid analgesic fentanyl has been commonly found in fake pills, while other opioid derivatives more powerful than fentanyl have also been discovered in tainted fake prescription drugs further causing concern.

Law enforcement officials did not indicate what ingredients Beckford's counterfeit pills contained.

"Prescription drug abuse threatens the very fabric of our society," said US Attorney Brian Stretch. He added that counterfeit pills, such as Beckford's scheme, "presented a serious risk to public safety".

"Prescription drug misuse is a national epidemic affecting all segments of society," said John Martin, Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge. "Sadly, individuals like David Beckford who produced counterfeit pills for personal gain, feed this problem."

There have been a number of high profile cases involving prescription drugs. In November 2015, two men died after taking fake Xanax pills in Santa Cruz, California, which followed three fatalities in San Francisco. And between January and March 2016, nine people died from fentanyl-containing Xanax pills in Florida. It is believed that Prince's death was caused by counterfeit painkiller tablets laced with fentanyl.

In July last year, the DEA published a report claiming that counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl indicated a new trend in black market trade, which was fuelling the US opioid crisis. The DEA said fentanyl availability, seizures and known overdose deaths were higher than at any other time since the drug's creation in 1959, with a 65 per cent increase in the testing of fentanyl exhibits between 2014 and 2015. The agency expected the number of addictions, overdoses and deaths to increase.

Martin said the DEA was in dialogue with foreign counterparts to address the availability of pharmaceuticals and manufacturing equipment, while also cracking down on operations in the US. The US Food and Drug Administration likewise reiterated its efforts to "pursue and bring to justice those who endanger the public's health by distributing counterfeit, unapproved and adulterated prescription medications".

Beckford was originally charged in May last year alongside four co-defendants. He was also convicted for international money laundering, and for his use and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking and in violation of the felon-in-possession statute, and was sentenced to 123 months in prison. In addition to the prison term, Beckford was also sentenced to a three-year period of supervised release and forfeiture of currency, firearms, ammunition, and custom jewellery.

Two of the co-defendants, Stephan Florida and Isaiah Clayton, received sentences for 14 months' imprisonment and 36 months' probation, respectively, A third co-defendant is yet to be sentenced.

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