U.S. Authorities Seized Over 115 Million Illicit Pills Containing Fentanyl in 2023

U.S. Authorities Seized Over 115 Million Illicit Pills Containing Fentanyl in 2023

U.S. law enforcement officials seized more than 115 million pills containing illicit fentanyl in 2023—a dramatic increase that experts say is “alarming” and shows the need for increased public health efforts to prevent the distribution of these pills and possible overdoses.

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A new study published Monday in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that the number of individual pills containing fentanyl that was seized by law enforcement was 2,300 times greater in 2023 than in 2017. In total, 115,562,603 pills containing fentanyl were seized in 2023, whereas 49,657 were seized in 2017. The study also found that the proportion of pills that were seized to the total number of fentanyl seized more than quadrupled—in 2023, pills represented nearly half of illicit fentanyl seizures, whereas they represented just 10% in 2017.

“Availability of illicit fentanyl is continuing to skyrocket in the U.S., and the influx of fentanyl-containing pills is particularly alarming,” Joseph J. Palamar, the study’s lead author and an associate professor at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, said in a press release from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Public health efforts are needed to help prevent these pills from falling into the hands of young people, and to help prevent overdose among people taking pills that unsuspectingly contain fentanyl.”

Of the nearly 107,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021, more than 75% involved an opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many experts link the overdose crisis to the spread of illicit fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid that is about 50 times more potent than heroin. As little as two milligrams of the drug could be lethal, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The new study found that most law enforcement seizures of fentanyl took place in the western U.S., even though historically, law enforcement seizures have been less common in that part of the country. Researchers said in their study that this highlights the importance of monitoring fentanyl supplies in different regions to improve the public health response.

The study was funded by the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. Researchers collected data for the study through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, a grant program administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy that aims to reduce drug trafficking and misuse.

Law enforcement seizures can help indicate the availability of illicit drugs, even if they may not reflect the prevalence of drug use, according to the NIH press release.

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