Pharmaceutical counterfeiting couple sentenced in US

An Alabama husband and wife have been sentenced for possession of pill presses used to make fake prescription drugs as well as controlled substances.

Earnest Lee Coleman (44) received a 78-month prison term, while his wife Tashana Lynn Sims (38) was sentenced to 36 months' probation for their roles in the offenses.

Coleman pleaded guilty to possessing punches, dies, and plates with the intent to defraud or mislead, being a felon in possession of a firearm, possessing controlled substances with the intent to distribute them, holding for sale and dispensing a counterfeit drug, and adulteration of a drug.

The criminal activity was discovered when an international mail package from China was intercepted en route the couple's home in Bessemer which contained two metal dies and a metal mould designed to be used to produce pressed pills.

Coleman and Sims ran a counterfeit prescription pill operation out of their home in Bessemer in which Coleman used acetaminophen, fentanyl, heroin, and paverine to make pills similar in appearance to legitimate pharmaceuticals with markings such as Lortab, Adderall, Soma, Xanax, Ecstasy, Oxycodone, and OxyContin.

Under US law, it is a violation to purchase a pill press without notifying the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), although it is currently not illegal to own one. However, it is against the law to possess a pill press with a die mould that resembles a prescription pill or trademarked pharmaceutical drug.

Last year, the DEA launched an outreach programme targeting online retailers who are facilitating the production of fake prescription drugs, after it became clearer that this equipment is widely available online. Some retailers – including Amazon – have already banned the sale of such equipment.

Data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shows however that pill press seizures at international mail facilities are increasing every year, growing 19-fold between 2011 to 2017.

"The broad availability and sale of pill presses allow novice criminals to make millions of doses of nearly perfect-looking counterfeits that can have deadly consequences," according to a 2019 report on the issue by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (NADDI) and the Partnership for Safe Medicines (PSM).

In 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the US died from opioid-involved overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) meanwhile estimates that the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse alone in the US is $78.5bn a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.

"Counterfeiting unapproved and potentially dangerous opioids poses a serious threat to the US public health and cannot be tolerated," said Special Agent in Charge Justin C. Fielder, of the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations.

"The FDA is fully committed to doing our part to disrupt and dismantle illegal prescription drug manufacturing and distribution networks."

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