Fentanyl Pill Seizures Skyrocket 2,300 Times in US from 2017 to 2023

Law enforcement seizures of illicit fentanyl pills in the US surged 2,300-fold from 2017 to 2023, with 115 million pills seized in 2023. The majority of fentanyl seizures in the Western US were in pill form, highlighting the urgent need for public health efforts to prevent overdose deaths.

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Bijay Laxmi
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Fentanyl Pill Seizures Skyrocket 2,300 Times in US from 2017 to 2023

Fentanyl Pill Seizures Skyrocket 2,300 Times in US from 2017 to 2023

A new study reveals an alarming 2,300-fold increase in law enforcement seizures of illicit fentanyl pills in the United States between 2017 and 2023. The analysis, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, found that the number of individual pills containing fentanyl seized by police jumped from just 49,657 in 2017 to a staggering 115,562,603 in 2023.

Why this matters: Thesurge in fentanyl seizures highlights the urgent need for public health efforts to prevent overdose deaths and address the opioid epidemic, which has devastating consequences for individuals, families, and communities across the US. As the availability of illicit fentanyl continues to rise, it poses a significant threat to national health and security.

The proportion of fentanyl pill seizures relative to total fentanyl seizures more than quadrupled during this period, rising from 10% in 2017 to 49% in 2023. While fentanyl seizures were historically less common in the Western US, the region now accounts for the majority of law enforcement seizures of fentanyl overall and the total weight of fentanyl confiscated. In 2023, an astonishing 77.8% of all fentanyl seizures in the West were in pill form.

NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., warned, "Fentanyl has continued to infiltrate the drug supply in communities across the United States, and it is a very dangerous time to use drugs, even just occasionally." She emphasized the risks posed by counterfeit pills, stating, "Illicit pills are made to look identical to real prescription pills, but can actually contain fentanyl. It is urgently important that people know that any pills given to someone by a friend, purchased on social media, or received from any source other than a pharmacy could be potentially deadly, even after a single ingestion."

Joseph J. Palamar, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and lead author on the paper, highlighted the alarming trend: "Availability of illicit fentanyl is continuing to skyrocket in the U.S., and the influx of fentanyl-containing pills is particularly alarming."

The surge in fentanyl seizures coincides with a grim milestone in the ongoing opioid epidemic. In 2022, over 107,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US, with 75% of those deaths involving an opioid. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid approximately 50 times more potent than heroin, can be lethal in doses as small as two milligrams. Its high potency, low production costs, and ease of transportation have made it an extremely profitable drug for illicit manufacturers and dealers.

The study analyzed data collected through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, a grant program aimed at reducing drug trafficking and misuse administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The HIDTA data, made available quarterly, allows for near real-time evaluation and distinguishes between fentanyl in pill or powder form.

The findings underscore the urgent need for public health efforts to prevent these illicit pills from reaching young people and to reduce overdose deaths among individuals unknowingly consuming fentanyl-laced pills. As the opioid crisis continues to claim lives at an alarming rate, addressing the proliferation of illicit fentanyl remains a critical priority for law enforcement and public health officials nationwide.

Key Takeaways

  • 2,300-fold increase in fentanyl pill seizures in the US between 2017 and 2023.
  • 115 million fentanyl pills seized in 2023, up from 49,657 in 2017.
  • Fentanyl pill seizures now account for 49% of total fentanyl seizures.
  • Western US now accounts for majority of fentanyl pill seizures (77.8%).
  • Fentanyl can be lethal in doses as small as 2 milligrams, with 75% of opioid deaths involving fentanyl.