DEA knew about Mexican pharmacies’ fentanyl-tainted drugs
Officials on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and State Department have recognized for greater than three years that some pharmacies in Mexico are promoting counterfeit drugs laced with illicit fentanyl — and that American vacationers are overdosing and dying from them.
A California health worker first alerted federal authorities within the spring of 2019, when 29-year-old Brennan Harrell died of a fentanyl overdose after he and a buddy purchased drugs at a drug retailer in Cabo San Lucas.
Afterward, his household cooperated with the DEA throughout a months-long investigation they are saying ended with the company promising to take motion that didn’t materialize.
Last month, a Los Angeles Times investigation discovered that some pharmacies in northwestern Mexico — together with a number of in Cabo — usually are not solely passing off fentanyl drugs as reliable oxycodone but in addition promoting methamphetamine tablets as Adderall.
It’s inconceivable to inform how many individuals have been harmed by this follow, as a result of Mexican fatality knowledge are notoriously unreliable and the U.S. authorities has been tight-lipped about the issue.
To Chelsea Shover, a UCLA researcher and senior writer of a current examine that paralleled the findings of The Times’ investigation, the federal government’s reticence to behave is especially troubling in mild of Harrell’s demise.
“This case could have been a canary in the coal mine and could have prevented more deaths that have surely occurred since then,” Shover stated. “We knew when we detected counterfeits that there would be people who died, but it’s deeply concerning that there was compelling evidence of this a few years ago, and yet there wasn’t any kind of public information campaign about it.”
Neither the DEA nor the State Department offered direct solutions to detailed questions. The DEA declined to remark. A State Department spokesperson referred again to an earlier assertion by which the division stated it “will not go into detail about any U.S. citizens impacted by counterfeit medication due to privacy considerations.”
Repeated requests for remark from the Baja California Sur state police and prosecutor’s workplace went unanswered. Los Cabos municipal police didn’t present remark.
Shortly after Harrell’s demise, officers in Cabo San Lucas instructed Mary Harrell that her younger, wholesome son had suffered a coronary heart assault. The household discovered what actually occurred weeks later, after they tracked down a health worker in California prepared to conduct an post-mortem and extra thorough toxicology testing.
In the top, figuring out Harrell’s precise reason behind demise required cash, a lawyer and a visit to Mexico — assets and choices many households don’t have.
U.S. authorities inaction and the truth that many Mexican toxicology screenings don’t embody fentanyl have mixed to create a severe however unquantifiable downside that’s poised to assert extra American lives. It’s a frustration Mary Harrell is aware of all too properly
after her efforts to spur a sturdy federal response went nowhere.
“No one should have to go through what we went through,” she stated. “No one.”
Growing up in Camarillo, an prosperous suburb simply east of Oxnard, Brennan Harrell was well-behaved and did properly at school. But sports activities had been his actual ardour: snowboarding, tennis, golf — and, greater than anything, browsing. He was so obsessed that at the same time as a child he didn’t speak about turning into an
astronaut or working for president. He simply wished to surf.
Bob Harrell had constructed a snug upper-middle-class life as a produce dealer promoting apples and pears to grocery chains. His son joined the household enterprise in 2016, 5 years after graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a level in agricultural enterprise, adopted by a stint in gross sales for a farming firm. For greater than three years, he and his father labored facet by facet as brokers and ate lunch collectively daily between journeys to orchards and conferences with purchasers.
After work on April 10, 2019, Harrell met his mother and father for dinner at a seafood restaurant. He deliberate to remain the night time at their home earlier than catching a flight to Cabo the subsequent morning for a bachelor celebration at a swanky new resort.
He was trying ahead to letting unfastened with half a dozen mates. Over dinner, Mary Harrell supplied some motherly recommendation concerning the imminent journey.
“I said, ‘Make sure you don’t take any drugs, anything, from anybody,’” she recalled in a current interview.
After a pause, she added: “I didn’t say pharmacy.”
The subsequent morning, Harrell left for the airport earlier than his mom wakened. He texted her after he had landed and checked in on the Hotel Riu Palace.
“He said he was having fun,” she remembered, and that it was “nice to spend some quality time” with one in every of his shut mates.
The two mates had determined to share a room, and so they spent the afternoon going to the recent tub, sipping margaritas and assembly ladies.
When it got here time for supper, the remainder of the group determined to go to a steakhouse downtown. But Harrell and his buddy stayed again.
Instead, they went to a pharmacy.
Around that point, Rosemary Allison landed in Cabo for a weeklong getaway with a few dozen mates — a visit she’d coincidentally scheduled for a similar time as Harrell’s. Allison had been mates with the Harrells for years and lived down the road from them. Brennan’s mother and father and others within the group deliberate to journey the next day to affix her at her seaside timeshare.
But round 3 a.m. April 12, Mary Harrell’s telephone rang. She noticed it was her son’s buddy and answered instantly.
“Mary, Brennan’s dead,” he instructed her.
She thought his voice sounded loud and unusual as he defined how he’d discovered Harrell of their room, now not respiration, and had no concept what had occurred to him. He may need defined extra — however after these first phrases, the remaining was a blur.
“I don’t remember talking to him that much anymore,” she stated. “I don’t.”
As quickly as she hung up, Mary Harrell known as her daughter in Washington state. Then she known as Allison.
“I think this is someone’s idea of a bad joke,” the distraught mom instructed her longtime buddy. “I won’t believe it unless you go see it and tell me it’s true.”
Allison received dressed and headed to the Hotel Riu Palace, arriving properly earlier than daybreak to search out Harrell’s mates sitting within the foyer, flanked by the resort supervisor and police.
“They told me they had gotten to the room and he was unresponsive,” she stated in an interview.
The resort later despatched an announcement to The Times that stated the entrance desk had gotten a frantic name from Harrell’s buddy, who requested resort employees to ship up a physician.
The physician instructed the resort employees to name 911, and by the point Allison arrived, Harrell’s physique was being ready to go to the mortuary. When she requested to see him, she stated, authorities initially instructed her no.
“This is [for] my best friend,” she remembers telling them. “I promised her I would look.”
Afterward, she known as Mary Harrell again.
“It’s true,” Allison stated. “It’s true.”
Once she knew her son actually was gone, Mary Harrell suspected foul play. Brennan was such a well being nut; she couldn’t think about any pure means he may have died. So her thoughts ventured to darkish locations, at one level even questioning whether or not he’d been killed for his organs.
While she reeled, her daughter scrambled to search out her mother and father an earlier flight to Mexico so they might prepare to accompany Harrell’s stays house and work out what had occurred to him. Around 7 a.m. — roughly 24 hours after their son had left California — the Harrells lifted off from Los Angeles.
A couple of hours later, they had been in Cabo San Lucas and on their approach to the police station, the place officers left them in a again room for a number of hours, they are saying. Eventually, a prosecutor confirmed up, had them signal some papers and allow them to depart. By that time, Mary Harrell started to fret that authorities in Mexico would by no means work out what had killed her son.
To her, the answer appeared clear: She wanted an post-mortem executed within the United States. But Mexican officers stated that on account of worldwide laws, Harrell’s physique must be embalmed earlier than it may very well be despatched to the United States. Embalming would make it considerably tougher to conduct a full toxicology display.
So, after they wakened April 13, the Harrells and Allison labored by means of a grim to-do listing: calling native physicians who could be prepared to extract Brennan’s blood, trying to find vials and making an attempt to find out which authorities official may grant them permission to ship samples house.
After two lengthy days of on the lookout for solutions, the Harrells on April 14 went out to dinner with their mates.
In the center of the meal, Mary Harrell’s telephone rang. The toxicology outcomes had been in — and so they confirmed no medicine in her son’s physique besides a small quantity of marijuana and a few alcohol. The exams included preliminary screenings for amphetamines, benzodiazepines, cocaine and morphine — however not fentanyl.
In the ultimate post-mortem report, officers in Mexico wrote that Brennan had suffered a myocardial infarction and bronchoaspiration. In different phrases, he died of a coronary heart assault and an obstructed airway — a catch-all description that did nothing to elucidate why these issues had occurred within the first place.
On April 16, 2019, the Harrells flew again to L.A., then drove straight from the airport to the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office, the place they handed over a cooler containing vials of their son’s blood and different bodily fluids.
It would take weeks for the ultimate outcomes to return again.
In the meantime, the Harrells had been determined to know what had occurred to Brennan. So they requested the one one who would possibly know: the buddy who’d been with him.
He appeared reluctant to reply questions. But a couple of days later, he agreed to have lunch with Bob Harrell and inform him concerning the hours main as much as Brennan’s demise.
“He said they went to a pharmacy and bought whatever they bought,” Bob Harrell stated. “And then something happened.”
Harrell’s buddy was imprecise concerning the particulars. But later, one other buddy despatched a photograph of the drugs: a handful of white bars that gave the impression to be 2-milligram tablets of Xanax and one blue, round pill that regarded similar to 30 milligrams of oxycodone — drugs so often counterfeited that the Justice Department has warned that these purchased on the road are “routinely” laced with fentanyl. The U.S. authorities has issued no such warning about treatment from Mexican pharmacies.
When the U.S. toxicology report got here in a couple of weeks later, it confirmed that Harrell had died of a drug overdose.
Specifically, he had alprazolam — the lively ingredient in Xanax — and alcohol in his blood, each at such low ranges that Dr. Christopher Young, Ventura County’s chief health worker, stated that even the 2 collectively wouldn’t have been sufficient to kill him.
But then there was the “much higher concentration” of fentanyl.
“Of the three, that’s the one that stands out,” Young stated in an interview. “It’s much more telling than the other two.”
Although he knew concerning the surge of individuals dying from fentanyl-tainted drugs, Young had
by no means heard of it occurring with drugs bought from a drugstore. Alarmed, he alerted the DEA, with which he frequently interacted as health worker.
“I remember explaining this case and emphasizing that this wasn’t one from my county, but that I just wanted them to be aware of it,” he stated, noting that he introduced it up greater than as soon as.
“I wanted to impress upon them how unusual this was,” he added. “They were concerned.”
In truth, the DEA was involved sufficient that brokers known as Bob and Mary Harrell.
According to the couple, DEA investigators met with them repeatedly, sifted by means of texts on their son’s telephone and interviewed a number of of his mates.
After months of conferences with DEA officers and doing their greatest to nudge alongside the investigation, the Harrells stated, a federal agent known as them to report that the company had completed its probe — and that it appeared Brennan had died from taking a counterfeit tablet bought at a pharmacy in Cabo San Lucas.
Mary Harrell remembers the agent saying the DEA had “a really good case,” which she assumed meant they’d a plan to close down some pharmacies.
“But,” she stated the agent added, “from now on we can’t tell you what we’re doing.”
As she labored by means of her grief, she began writing to lawmakers and authorities businesses. At one level, she despatched a prime State Department official a plea for motion to maintain Americans overseas from struggling a destiny much like her son’s.
Signed “Mary A. Harrell and Family,” the November 2019 e mail detailed their ordeal and known as into query a regulatory system that’s supposed to maintain individuals just like the wholesome 29-year-old protected.
“Since Mexico does not test for fentanyl,” she wrote, “I wonder how many other deaths are from this?”
The response she received was immediate however cursory. Over the subsequent few weeks, she emailed time and again, begging the federal government to inform individuals concerning the hazard.
“I don’t understand how many deaths would be considered ENOUGH to issue warnings,” she wrote that December.
“If there had been warnings I believe my son would still be alive,” she added within the letter. “Travelers going to Mexico need to be aware of this.”
Eventually, in early 2020, a State Department official in Mexico emailed to let her know the division had added a couple of paragraphs about prescribed drugs to its web site.
It’s not on the principle web page of journey advisories for Mexico. Tucked away on the nation info web page, after a number of thousand phrases of textual content, is a single sentence that hints on the downside: “Counterfeit medication is common and may prove to be ineffective, the wrong strength, or contain dangerous ingredients.”
Far from warning vacationers away from pharmacies, the positioning recommends that they stick with “reputable establishments.”
For specialists in hurt discount who examine methods to stop opioid deaths, that response appears woefully insufficient.
“The State Department and anyone giving warnings about drugs needs to be explicit,” stated Maia Szalavitz, writer of “Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction.” “People who travel to Mexico to get cheap drugs need to know that this is a risk that is real.”
For Mary Harrell, the language the State Department added about Mexican prescribed drugs was deeply disappointing.
“They gave me that little added clause,” she stated. “That’s it.”