Bipartisan bill targeting ‘industrious monsters’ making deadly fake pills with pill presses clears House, gets Senate hearing

Most of the focus on drug policy this session is on fixing the state’s drug possession law. But a little-known bipartisan bill just took another step toward the governor’s desk. It could become the most significant policy to come out of this session to address the region’s Fentanyl crisis and rising overdose deaths.

House Bill 1209 would make knowingly having or using pill presses with the intent to make counterfeit pills a Class C felony under state law.

It is unlawful for any person to possess, purchase, deliver, sell, or possess with intent to sell a tableting machine or encapsulating machine knowing, or under circumstances where one reasonably should know, that it will be used to manufacture, compound, convert, produce, process, prepare, or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled substance, other than cannabis, in violation of this chapter.

House Bill 1209

Drug dealers use these devices to make counterfeit Percocet and other pills packed with illicit Fentanyl that are flooding the local black market. They are also fueling the drug crisis and rising overdose rates in the region.

“These bogus pills look like the real deal down to the federal number imprinted on them, and just one can be deadly,” said Rep. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, a cosponsor of the bill.

The bill is named in honor of Tyler Lee Yates, a close family friend of Griffey’s who died in January 2022 at 31 years old after taking what he believed to be a legitimate Percocet.

“Tyler was the son of a firefighter I came up the ranks with. He was a good kid who was struggling to get relief from chronic pain he suffered after a motorcycle crash, and like many in similar situations – he turned to the black market,” said Griffey. He was at a local casino and bought what he believed to be a legitimate Percocet. Law enforcement would later view security camera footage and watch as Tyler died in that parking lot after taking one pill he believed to be a legitimate, federally-regulated pharmaceutical that was actually made with a pill press and full of unregulated amounts of one of the most addictive and deadly drugs on the planet – Fentanyl.”

Counterfeit pills often called “Blues,” have fueled the local and national overdose crisis in recent years.

“The industrious monsters making and pedaling these fake pills are playing Russian Roulette with all lives,” said Griffey. “And now, they are targeting our youngest, most vulnerable – our children, making these pills in rainbow colors to look like children’s cereal to market to kids with deadly consequences.”

“All this time we spend haggling over the Blake fix, we are missing the elephant in the room. People are dying! Our children are dying! It is our job as legislators to ensure public safety. I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate will recognize that this crisis is one of the state’s biggest issues and act accordingly,” said Griffey.

“I thank my good friend and colleague Rep. Leavitt for allowing me to join her effort to create something tangible we can leave with this session to save lives and show we are paying attention,” added Griffey.

House Bill 1209 should be considered a first step toward cracking down on anyone knowingly trafficking pill presses or the counterfeit pills they create, according to Griffey. The latest data in King County shows 2023 is on track to see more overdose death than in 2022.

“In Washington state, we like to be first, but we have completely dropped the ball on counterfeit Fentanyl,” Griffey added.

House Bill 1209 was approved unanimously in the House. The bill received a hearing in the Senate Law and Justice Committee Thursday, March 16. It has been scheduled for a committee vote on March 22 at 6 p.m.

Please click the image below to watch Rep. Griffey’s floor speech on the Tyler Lee Yates bill.

“I encourage everyone who has been touched by this crisis or who just wants to see this bill pass to reach out to the Senate Law and Justice Committee members directly,” said Griffey.

Background on Fentanyl-filled counterfeit pills and pill press operations

Bad actors using pill presses and die molds to make counterfeit medications is not new. In fact, for over a decade, there have been traffickers pedaling imitation cancer drugs filled with substances such as Acetaminophen. The use of pill presses and molds to make counterfeit Percocet and other prescription opioids first came to light in the U.S. around 2015, when the first reports of such fake pills came in.

But the proliferation of counterfeit pills has exploded in the years since being reported in all 50 states by 2019. The even bigger concern, in 2019, a sampling by the Drug Enforcement Agency of seized counterfeit tablets nationwide found that 27 percent contained a lethal dose of Fentanyl. In 2022, the DEA reported six of every ten pills on the street were laced with potentially fatal doses of Fentanyl.

A lethal dosage of Fentanyl for a non-regular opioid user is just 2 milligrams – equal to roughly a few grains of salt – and much smaller than a lethal dose of heroin which is 30 milligrams, according to the DEA.

The synthetically produced Fentanyl used in these pills is often imported from China, India, and Mexico. It has been sold on the dark web along with pill presses, dye molds, or similar items that can now make pills that look the same as one you would get from the pharmacy.

These fake pills are causing record overdoses because the Fentanyl is synthetically made – not regulated as medical Fentanyl is – so both the purity of the synthetic Fentanyl being made and the amount of it packed into fake pills varies wildly. That leaves the person taking the fake pill – whether they know it is fake or not – in the dark about how potent the pill they are about to swallow is and whether taking just one will kill them.

The existing opioid crisis made this an attractive market for foreign and domestic drug traffickers who locally can set up shop in a garage with as little as a $1,000 investment and potentially turn that into millions of dollars’ worth of pills at the street level.

Federal and state law

There are a variety of laws in place around pill presses and pill press molds that are used to make fake pills look legitimate.

On the national level, it is illegal to have a mold intending to create a counterfeit pill – but pill presses themselves are not.

Under federal law, legitimate users of these devices are required to self-report their possession, use or transfer.

The DEA and Customs and Border Protection must electrically approve any foreign importation of pill presses.

But according to a 2019 DEA threat assessment, traffickers circumvent that law by misrepresenting or intentionally mislabeling the devices or parts of the devices. Even when they are brought in officially, there is little to no regulatory oversight.

Only a handful of states have passed laws regarding pill presses, with Florida passing the strongest law in 2018. Previous efforts to pass a law like House Bill 1209 – the Tyler Lee Yates bill – have failed in Washington state.

Many experts say the explosion of overdose death resulting from synthetic Fentanyl-filled counterfeit pills will only continue without strong action at the state and federal levels, including much stronger penalties for those trafficking and using pill presses.

Last week in Congress, U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger reintroduced her bipartisan legislation to crack down on narcotics traffickers using illicit pill presses to manufacture counterfeit drugs. It has failed twice before.

For more information

Read: The 2021 report from the Partnership for Safe Medicines on the proliferation of pill presses here.

Read: The 2019 report from the Partnership for Safe Medicines on the proliferation of pill presses here.

Read: The 2019 DEA Threat Assessment Report here.

Read: King County overdose dashboard here.

###

Washington State House Republican Communications
houserepublicans.wa.gov