Fentanyl-spiked pill seizures increased 834% in 3 years

Law enforcement agencies in the United States are seizing drugs containing fentanyl — particularly pills — according to new research.

The new study finds that more than 2 million fentanyl-laced pills were seized in the last quarter of 2021, almost 50 times the number seized in early 2018.

The results suggest that a growing demographic of people who use drugs, including those who buy counterfeit pills of common drugs, likes to use drugs benzodiazepines or pain relievers – could be at risk for accidental exposure to fentanyl.

Drug overdoses have risen to unprecedented levels, with overdose deaths in the United States exceeding 100,000 annually. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, is a leading cause of overdose deaths because other drugs can be adulterated or contaminated with fentanyl, and a lethal dose can be as little as two milligrams.

“Many people who use heroin already anticipate that fentanyl will be in the drug supply and are aware of the dangers. But people who illegally buy pills on the “street” claiming to be Xanax or Oxycodone can overdose when such pills are laced with fentanyl, even at trace levels,” says Joseph Palamar, associate professor of public health from the Grossman School of New York University of Medicine and lead author of the study in the journal drug and alcohol addiction.

“This puts a much broader population at risk who may not expect their medicines to be adulterated,” says Palamar.

National data on drug seizures and drug overdoses are often delayed and reported a year or more later, hampering public health efforts to quickly address emerging public health problems. This research was conducted as part of the National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS), which uses real-time monitoring to detect early signs of potential drug epidemics.

Researchers examined data on law enforcement drug seizures from high drug trafficking areas in the United States to determine the number of fentanyl-containing drug seizures from January 2018 to December 2021. Drug seizures likely account for a small proportion of drugs sold and used. Experts say this can be used as a proxy for drug availability.

Researchers found that pills now account for 29.2% of fentanyl seizures, with the number of seizures involving fentanyl-laced pills increasing from 68 in the first quarter of 2018 to 635 in the last quarter of 2021 (an 834% increase). In the fourth quarter of 2021 alone, law enforcement seized 2,089,186 pills containing fentanyl, up from 42,202 pills seized in the first quarter of 2018 (a 4,850% increase, or nearly 50 times the number of pills).

The researchers also noted an increase in the number of fentanyl-containing powders seized by law enforcement agencies (from 424 in the first quarter of 2018 to 1,539 in the last quarter of 2021, a 263% increase) and in the total weight of powders seized (from 298 kg to 2,416 kg, a increase of 710% over the same period).

While the study didn’t capture what the pills were disguised as, nor what amount of fentanyl was found in them, given the risks of accidental exposure to fentanyl, the researchers call for more education on the risks of buying pills without a prescription and harm reduction approaches.

“People who buy illegal drugs can protect themselves by using them test strips to test their medication for fentanyl and should also have naloxone, a nasal spray that can reverse overdoses,” says study author Daniel Ciccarone of the University of California, San Francisco.

The findings also underscore the importance of coordinated, real-time drug surveillance to shed light on emerging trends as they emerge.

“Fentanyl-related deaths continue to increase in the United States, and there is an urgent need for more real-time data — particularly related to drug supply — to support targeted prevention and harm reduction efforts,” adds study author Linda B. Cottler of the University of Florida.

NDEWS, led by researchers from the University of Florida, NYU, and Florida Atlantic University, reports the latest surveillance in Weekly briefings and is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Additional co-authors are from Columbia University, the University of Baltimore, and the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program.

Source: NYU Fentanyl-spiked pill seizures increased 834% in 3 years

Dais Johnston

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