NEWPORT, RI -- People should learn from their mistakes, not die from them.  But today, many Americans are being killed by unknowingly ingesting fentanyl in counterfeit pills. 

Fentanyl is a deadly artificial opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin.  While it can help patients with pain in hospital settings, illicit fentanyl is now the most common drug in overdose deaths.

Today, at CODAC Behavioral Healthcare’s facility in Newport, U.S. Senator Jack Reed gathered with addiction, treatment and recovery experts; law enforcement; and advocates and public health providers to warn that ‘one pill can kill.’  

To help save lives, combat the overdose crisis, and stop the flow of fentanyl that is poisoning people nationwide, Reed and other speakers outlined the need for a multi-pronged strategy that includes education, prevention, harm reduction, and coordinated efforts to crack down on illicit pill manufacturers and traffickers.  

During the event, drug experts discussed how the illicit fentanyl found on the streets of Rhode Island often starts as precursor chemicals from China, which are shipped to labs in Mexico, where the fentanyl is processed into counterfeit pills made to look like prescription drugs, such as Adderall, Oxycontin, Xanax, and other drugs – or mixed into cocaine, meth, and other street drugs to increase their potency and addictiveness.  Many of these fake, fentanyl-laced drugs are marketed to young people online through social media.  And the potency of these highly addictive drugs gets unsuspecting users easily hooked on synthetic opioids.

Fentanyl was responsible for the majority of overdoses that killed a record 110,000 Americans last year – including 434 Rhode Islanders.  And it’s now the leading cause of death of American adults under 45. 

The CDC says that, on average, 150 people die in the U.S. each day from a synthetic opioid overdose.  Often, it’s fentanyl that victims had no clue they were ingesting.

Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than 58.3 million fentanyl-laced fake pills.  And regional DEA lab tests showing that roughly 6 out of 10 fake prescription pills seized in New England contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.

To help educate the public, DEA launched the “One Pill Can Kill” campaign (, to help spread the word to more young people, parents, teachers, coaches, and community leaders to better understand the facts, risks, and dangers of fentanyl-laced drugs.

“As kids head back to school and get homework assignments, parents need to do their own homework too.  They need to understand the facts about fentanyl, how prevalent and pervasive it has become, and have open and honest conversations about their children about the dangers of these drugs.  The illicit drug market has changed and parents and communities need to keep up.  We’ve got to take smarter, evidence-based approaches to this issue.  Education and prevention go a long way and so does reducing the stigma around addiction and overdose deaths.  Rhode Island is a national leader in effective policies, such as making affordable test strips available that can detect fentanyl and similar substances.  Another part of our public health response is increasing access to overdose reversal drugs like Narcan.  But look, more Narcan and test strips aren’t a silver bullet.  We need to address the root causes of this epidemic, including the physical and mental pain that drive people to drugs.  We must do more to disrupt and dismantle the criminal networks of suppliers and distributers, which is why I am helping to pass the bipartisan FEND Off Fentanyl Act.  This bill would impose tough sanctions on criminal organizations and people involved in the illicit fentanyl supply chain and ratchet up penalties for fentanyl trafficking,” said Senator Reed, who cosponsored the FEND Off Fentanyl Act and included it in the national defense bill making its way through the U.S. Senate.

“In the past few months, Rhode Island has seen 15-year-old children die from a single use of a contaminated, or a counterfeit pill. Here at CODAC, we’ve seen young adults and adults, and those who are aging demonstrate increased risks for overdose death due to the contamination of street product,” said Linda Hurley, President & CEO of CODAC Behavioral Healthcare. “It is critical to reach all those vulnerable with this message. No product is safe if it has not been prescribed directly to you.”

“Today criminals can produce fake pills and sell them online and through social media to Rhode Islanders who think they are getting legitimate prescription pills,” said Matthew C. Moynihan, Chief of Police for South Kingstown and Treasurer of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association. “I urge parents to talk to your teens and to tell them that it is not safe to take any pill that was not prescribed for them. Today’s message is so important: one pill can kill.”

Matthew Brown, who sought treatment at CODAC, shared his story of being prescribed pain medication after a car crash, which began a path to addiction leading him to seek out counterfeit pills containing fentanyl. Brown noted: “There is no safe supply within the illicit drug market.  There’s no safe fake pills.  There’s no safe heroin.  There’s no safe any drugs,” he noted, calling for investments in harm reduction strategies.

The opioid crisis has taken a devastating toll on lives and communities in all fifty states.  Recognizing that harm reduction helps save lives, Rhode Island has spearheaded efforts to make Narcan (naloxone), a nasal spray for opioid overdose rescue, more widely available, as well as test strips allowing users to detect the presence of fentanyl in drugs.

In advance of International Overdose Awareness Day, which falls on August 31, public health organizations are rallying support for greater use of five specific harm reduction interventions: Availability of naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses; Drug checking resources such as fentanyl test strips; Safer drug use supplies such as sterile syringes; Overdose prevention centers for supervised use, and; Methadone and buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorder.

Earlier this year, Brown University's School of Public Health and New York University’s (NYU) Langone Health were jointly awarded a four-year $5.8 million federal grant from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct research to measure the impact of some of the first publicly recognized overdose prevention centers (OPCs) in the United States.  The study will be the first of its kind in the United States.  While overdose prevention centers are not sanctioned at the federal level, the State of Rhode Island and New York City have both passed laws allowing the operation of safe injection sites.

Working as an appropriator, Senator Reed helped include $1.5 billion for nationwide State Opioid Response Grants in the 2023 appropriations law, as well as $719 million to improve the detection and seizure of fentanyl and other narcotics at ports of entry with new technology and personnel.  The law invests another $105 million in new resources to disrupt transnational criminal organizations and stop fentanyl and illicit drugs at their source.  And Reed also introduced the bipartisan CANSEE Act (S. 2355) to crack down on ways the Mexican cartels and Chinese chemicals manufacturers use cryptocurrency to launder their illicit proceeds from fentanyl.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha, who successfully fought in court to financially hold opioid manufacturers accountable, Rhode Island is also getting over $120 million in opioid settlement money – much of which will flow to the state in the next 10-15 years - that the state must wisely allocate to counteract impacts of the overdose crisis.

The One Pill Can Kill Campaign offers an online toolbox and fact sheets for the media, parents, teachers, educators, and community organizations to raise awareness about counterfeit prescription drugs. DEA has created materials in English and Spanish to help raise awareness.