What are Counterfeit Drugs?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2019
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Counterfeit drugs are questionable or fake drugs which have been packaged deceptively, in a way which causes them to look like legitimate products. There are a number of different ways to produce counterfeit drugs, and the issue of counterfeiting is widespread in the realms of both legal and illegal drugs. For example, various white powdered substances may be used to substitute for cocaine, or a company might produce sugar pills and label them as antibiotics.

Drug counterfeiting is extremely dangerous. Some counterfeit drugs are produced with substances which are actively harmful, and they could cause severe injury or death if consumed. Others will have effects different than those anticipated by the person using the drug, which can be a real problem with counterfeit pharmaceuticals. Drug counterfeiting has been in issue since the early 1900s, but the problem rapidly accelerated with the explosion of online pharmacies at the close of the 20th century.

One common counterfeiting technique involves cutting an expensive drug with a cheaper substance, a practice which is common with illegal drugs. However, prescription drugs, especially compounded drugs, can also be cut. In other cases, people substitute a fake for the real thing, or they make a drug with drastically different active ingredients. As a result, counterfeit drugs can create a situation in which a patient is being dosed with unreliable and potentially dangerous substances, and the problem may only become apparent after the counterfeit drugs have caused harm.


In terms of illegal drugs, counterfeiting is a difficult issue, because it cannot be prosecuted. Selling heroin, for example, is illegal whether or not it has been cut, as is possession, so someone who takes counterfeit heroin is not likely to report it. Marketing illegal drugs adulterated with dangerous substances can result in a more severe conviction if the dealer is caught, but the underworld economy of illegal drug manufacture, distribution, and sales makes such convictions difficult.

Selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, can get someone into a world of trouble. Most nations have agencies which regulate drug production, and someone selling counterfeit drugs, especially counterfeit versions of brand-name drugs, can be severely penalized for violating trademarks and endangering public health. Reporting counterfeit pharmaceuticals is critical, to ensure that counterfeiters are caught before they can do more damage.

Avoiding counterfeit pharmaceuticals can be difficult. Using a registered and licensed pharmacist is a good place to start, as is being very familiar with one's medications. Changes in color, shape, size, and texture of drugs can be a sign that they are counterfeit, as can differences in drug packaging or seals. If a drug does not have the intended effect or peculiar side effects develop, a sample should be brought to the doctor's and to a reputable pharmacy so that an investigation can be initiated.


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