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Federal data show a 2,326% increase in fentanyl pill seizures. Doctors, experts seeing a similar trend

Hanna Webster, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in News & Features

PITTSBURGH — Seizures of pills containing fentanyl have skyrocketed in the U.S., underscoring the country's struggle to curb deaths from a highly potent, synthetic opioid that has been detected in an array of drugs, including counterfeit versions of non-opioids such as Xanax.

Data showing more than a 2,300% increase in pills with fentanyl seized by American law enforcement from 2017 to 2023 were in a report commissioned by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in the International Journal of Drug Policy on Monday.

"Fentanyl is in everything," said Heather Richards, medical director for the Center for Recovery Medicine at Allegheny Health Network and a physician. "I don't think I've seen any substance that at some point along the line has not had fentanyl."

Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl — or a few grains small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil — are lethal to most Americans.

In 2023, the Drug Enforcement Administration alone seized more than 80 million fentanyl-laced fake pills and nearly six tons of fentanyl powder — enough to kill every American and still have more than 45 million lethal doses left over.

While many people who use opioids have learned how to live with fentanyl, many others don't have a tolerance to opioids at all — making one-off overdoses from a counterfeit pill containing fentanyl all the more dangerous.

 

"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," said Nora Volkow, NIDA director, in a Monday news release about the study. "Illicit pills are made to look identical to real prescription pills, but can actually contain fentanyl."

The study gathered data from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which receives reports about drug seizures from law enforcement. Researchers state in the study that drug seizures can be seen as a "proxy" for drug availability.

Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, Beaver and Lawrence counties are all considered "high-intensity drug trafficking areas" by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"We do see a lot of first-time, unintentional overdoses from pills (at Allegheny General Hospital)," said Richards. In many cases, that person got the pill from a friend, who said they got it from a pharmacy. "I try to tell people, 'You can't trust even your friend in this situation,'" she said. "Unless you see a pharmacist dispense it, it may contain fentanyl."

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