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Prince’s fentanyl overdose might be connected to deadly mislabeled pills trend

While police haven't raised the possibility of foul play, some are speculating that the late singer had no idea that he was taking fentanyl, the powerful opiate responsible for a rash of deaths across North America.

by Davide Mastracci
Aug 22 2016, 3:34pm

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

Prince's overdose may have been a result of mislabeled pills containing fentanyl, according a to a new report that has prompted warnings about the rise of dangerous counterfeit painkillers in the US.

According to an anonymous source close to the investigation into the singer's death who spoke with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Prince had pills that were labeled as Watson 385, a mix of hydrocodone and acetaminophen found in common prescriptions, most notably Vicodin. The pills actually contained traces of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid said to be 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin.

The source said that investigators, who labeled Prince's cause of death as an accidental self-administered overdose on fentanyl in June, are now speculating that he didn't know the pills contained any trace of the drug. Police have not indicated that foul play is suspected.

Related: How doctors and big pharma helped create North America's fentanyl crisis

Prince had no prescriptions for controlled substances in Minnesota in the year before his death, and investigators are still unsure how he obtained the drugs.

Illicit drug producers often cut heroin and other opioids with fentanyl. The synthetic opioid has been linked to a rash of overdose deaths across North America in recent years, as users are often unaware they are ingesting the powerful substance. Drug dealers across the US and Canada often import bootleg fentanyl from labs in China.

According to a Drug Enforcement Administration report released in July, counterfeit pills containing fentanyl are now a "trend, not a series of isolated incidents."

"It's a huge concern," said DEA spokesperson Melvin Patterson. "People don't know what they are getting."

Amid the rising demand for heroin and other opioids, US law enforcement officials have also warned that fentanyl is becoming an increasingly popular product sold by Mexican drug cartels.

In July, President Barack Obama signed off on legislation aimed at combatting the US opioid abuse crisis by providing communities with funds to develop treatment and overdose prevention programs.

Related: How the Walter White of fentanyl appeared, then disappeared, on the dark web

A White House statement noted that the bill, which offered $181 million in funding, "falls far short" of what is needed, but that "some action is better than none."

In Canada, just across the border from Minnesota, a spate of fentanyl overdoses has also prompted a public health crisis, especially in British Columbia, which declared a public health emergency over the matter in April. Provincial health officials are estimating there might up to 800 fentanyl overdose deaths there by the end of this year.

Officials believe Prince wasn't a regular user of fentanyl, as they found no traces of the synthetic opioid in his body in tests administered before his death. They believe he took the fatal dose within 24 hours before his death on April 21.

Prince only weighed 112 pounds at the time of his death, but the source said autopsy results found there was enough fentanyl in his body to have killed anyone, regardless of their size.

Related: Nobody knows just how bad the fentanyl crisis is right now in Canada's biggest province

The Associated Press spoke with a source involved in the investigation who said a large amount of pills containing the mislabeled substance was also found in Prince's luggage, mixed into bottles of Vitamin C, and aspirin. There were also over 20 of these pills found in a bottle of Aleve, according to the source.

Investigators also found several other bottles of controlled substances in Prince's possession, many containing oxycodone and codeine.

Follow Davide Mastracci on Twitter: @DavideMastracci