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Counterfeit drugs found in Prince's home growing more common in MN

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Sheriff's office employee at Paisley Park
A sheriff's office employee talks on a phone outside of Paisley Park on May 10.
Peter Cox | MPR News

An official close to the investigation of Prince's death has told the Associated Press that investigators found counterfeit drugs including synthetic opioids in the musician's home. 

Public health officials in Minnesota and across the country have warned that counterfeit opioids are becoming increasingly common and pose a high risk of overdose death.  

Tests on pills in Prince's home found that the drugs in the pills often didn't match the stamp on the pills, according to the reports. The pills contained fentanyl, as well as other powerful synthetic opioids and other drugs. It was first reported in the Star Tribune over the weekend.  

Prince died of a fentanyl overdose in April, according to a medical examiner's report. These synthetic opioids discovered by investigators create the same euphoria as other opioids like heroin, but public health officials say they can be very dangerous because they're so strong. 

Carol Falkowski, CEO of Drug Abuse Dialogues and one of the foremost drug experts in the state, said counterfeit synthetic opioids are a "game changer" in the state. 

"We've never had a potent drug of this nature in the illicit drug supply," Falkowski said. "And we've never had the availability of counterfeit pills that contain fentanyl, that aren't necessarily sold as fentanyl, they're sold as other prescription drugs."

While fentanyl can be prescribed by a doctor, it's typically used only during major surgeries or for end-of-life care. But there's been an increase in the number of synthetic opioids that are being produced in clandestine labs overseas and then either trafficked into the country or sold online, according to Drug Enforcement Administration officials. 

Authorities warn that they can look like normal pills produced by a pharmaceutical company, but could be mixed with other drugs or contain dangerously high doses of opioids. Because of their illicit nature, the person taking the drugs may not know what's in them or how strong the opioids are.

"What this means is that people who are purchasing either pills or street drugs absolutely don't know what they are getting," Falkowski said, "and the chance is that if it's fentanyl, it's just going to kill them." 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fentanyl is between 50 and 100 times stronger than morphine, which is also an opioid. The Minnesota Department of Health connected fentanyl to 36 deaths last year. 

Investigators also found pills at the home that contained another powerful synthetic opioid called U-47700. That drug has been linked to dozens of death investigations across the country this year, according to the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education. 

U-47700 was banned in Ohio last year after a spate of overdose deaths. Other states have also taken steps to explicitly ban the substance. The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy is taking steps to make it easier to prosecute sale or distribution of U-47700 and other synthetic opioids in the state. Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration have said people can already be prosecuted for the substances under the Federal Analogue Act.