Dovetailing with a surge in overdose deaths, the United States has seen a sharp rise in seizures of illicit fentanyl, according to a new report.
Law enforcement seizures of pills containing illicit fentanyl rose nearly 50-fold, according to a comparison of data from the first quarter of 2018 with the last quarter of 2021 - with pills accounting for more than one-quarter of seizures by the end of last year.
Seizures of fentanyl-containing powder also rose during the study period.
"An increase in illicit pills containing fentanyl points to a new and increasingly dangerous period in the United States," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Volkow noted that pills are often taken or snorted by inexperienced drug users who have lower tolerances.
"When a pill is contaminated with fentanyl, as is now often the case, poisoning can easily occur," she said in an NIDA news release.
In actual numbers, seizures of pills containing fentanyl increased from 68 to 635. And the total number of individual pills seized surged from just over 42,200 to 2.1 million.
Seizures of fentanyl-containing powder rose from 424 to 1,539. The total weight of powder seized increased from about 650 pounds to over 5,000 pounds, according to the NIH-funded study published March 31 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
The latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported overdose deaths at a record level, with nearly 106,000 in the 12-month period ending in October of last year. That death toll is largely driven by illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
While people may intentionally seek out illicit fentanyl, many are not aware that the drugs they think they are using - including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or benzodiazepines - may actually be fentanyl, or have been adulterated or contaminated with fentanyl, officials say.
Fentanyl is about 50 times more potent than heroin and a lethal dose may be as small as 2 milligrams, so using a drug laced with fentanyl greatly increases overdose risk.
According to study leader Joseph Palamar, "For the first time, we can see this rapid rise in pills adulterated with fentanyl, which raises red flags for increasing risk of harm in a population that is possibly less experienced with opioids." Palamar is a co-investigator on the NIDA-funded National Drug Early Warning System, and an associate professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.
"We absolutely need more harm reduction strategies, such as naloxone distribution and fentanyl test strips, as well as widespread education about the risk of pills that are not coming from a pharmacy," said Palamar. "The immediate message here is that pills illegally obtained can contain fentanyl."
There's more on fentanyl at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
SOURCE: U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, news release, March 31, 2022