The number of fentanyl pills seized by law enforcement nearly quintupled between 2018 and 2021, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The surge in seizures comes amid a period of record-high overdose deaths, researchers said.
“An increase in illegal pills containing fentanyl points to a new and increasingly dangerous time in the United States,” said National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow, in a statement Thursday.
A team of researchers compared data from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program for the first quarter of 2018 and the last quarter of December 2021. The researchers found that the number of fentanyl-containing pill seizures increased from 68 to 635 The number of pills containing fentanyl seized by law enforcement increased from 42,202 to 2,089,186 and seizures of powder containing fentanyl increased from 424 to 1,539.
Pills accounted for more than a quarter of illegal fentanyl seizures by the end of 2021, the scientists said, more than double the number in 2018.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid about 50 times more potent than heroin, is one of the main reasons for the recent spike in drug overdoses, the study said.
Researchers said recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the US hit a record number of overdose deaths in the 12 months to October 2021. The CDC estimated that nearly 106,000 people died from drug overdoses during that time. according to a study.
The researchers said many of those looking for the drug are unaware that other drugs they use, such as heroin and cocaine, could be contaminated with fentanyl. The study authors said that use of fentanyl-laced drugs greatly increases the likelihood of overdose, since a lethal dose “can be as small as two milligrams.”
Volkow said fentanyl-laced pills are often used by “people who are more naïve about drug use and have a lower tolerance.”
Researchers called for more harm reduction strategies such as fentanyl test strips, drug risk education and distribution of naloxone, a drug that helps reverse overdoses.
“For the first time, we are seeing this rapid rise in fentanyl-tampered pills, which sets off red flags of increasing risk of harm in a population that may be less experienced with opioids,” said Dr. Joseph J. Palamar, who led the team of scientists, said in a statement. “The immediate message here is that illegally obtained pills can contain fentanyl.”