Not only were fentanyl seizures at the highest level ever recorded, but fentanyl overdoses within the United States also hit new highs, indicating the success that transnational criminal organizations had in pushing their deadly products to the public. A DEA investigation this fall found a direct link between criminal drug organizations in Mexico and fentanyl-related overdose deaths.
But drug users are not necessarily choosing to consume fentanyl, which is half the problem for U.S. government efforts to stop this third iteration of the opioid crisis. Street drugs are being laced with fentanyl, making all types of illicit drugs unsafe.
“Everything is potentially deadly right now, and people need to be aware,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram told ABC’s This Week in a recent interview.
The emergence of fentanyl began nearly a decade ago. U.S. Customs and Border Protection
, the federal agency responsible for safeguarding the country’s borders, initially reported seizing fentanyl in 2013, when just 2 pounds were found. In that time, suppliers have surged enormous amounts into the country. While federal agencies are making record-high seizures, exorbitant amounts are making it past them, as evidenced by the rise in fentanyl-caused overdose deaths.
The 11,200 pounds of fentanyl seized by CBP at international mail inspection facilities, sea, land, and air ports of entry, and by smugglers trying to sneak it across between the ports of entry was double last year’s fentanyl seizures. That same year, 5,400 pounds of heroin were seized, according to CBP data for fiscal year 2021, which ran from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30.
The Drug Enforcement Administration additionally seized 20.4 million pills that were fake versions of prescriptions and pumped full of fentanyl. The pills were enough to kill every American, according to the DEA.
Because just a few grains of the substance is all it takes for a user to feel its effect, its value per ounce is higher than other drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine. For example, the DEA states 2 milligrams is enough to kill someone who inhales, consumes, or injects it. CBP’s work preventing 11,200 pounds of fentanyl from reaching American streets prevented 2.5 billion potentially fatal doses of fentanyl from entering U.S. communities.
Since a tiny dosage of the drug goes so far, it also makes it significantly easier for the criminals transporting it to sneak into the country.
Wuhan: Epicenter of fentanyl production
Mexican cartels purchase the ingredients for fentanyl from labs in Wuhan, China
. The cartels will produce the fentanyl from those ingredients and push it into the U.S. Chinese-based financiers launder the profits for the cartels out of the U.S., back to China, and on to Mexico.
The cartels are in the business of selling whatever drug brings in the most money and is easiest to produce. Through the decades, federal law enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border has seized millions of pounds of drugs — most of which was marijuana. Over the past five years, marijuana seizures have significantly declined as U.S. states legalized recreational cannabis and legal grow operations began in the U.S. Because marijuana can only be grown in certain climates, similar to cocaine, it made drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamines more attractive because they can be produced anywhere, any time.
“The drug threat today is different than it ever was before. Now, today, this is all synthetic or man-made. There’s an unlimited amount of these drugs that can be made,” Milgram said.
The Chinese-driven fentanyl boom represents a third wave of the opioid epidemic, following the initial abuse of prescription painkillers around the turn of the century and a subsequent rise in heroin use. Heroin is a very addictive analgesic drug derived from morphine, which is naturally produced by opium plants. Fentanyl is synthetic and up to 100 times stronger than morphine.
“The real problem are the criminal drug networks in Mexico that are mass-producing fentanyl, which is driving the overdose deaths,” said Milgram. “Those networks want to sell drugs to Americans. It’s how they profit. They will exploit any vulnerability that they can to get those drugs in the United States.”
Americans unknowingly use fentanyl
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses in the 12-month period leading up to April, up from 78,000 the previous year.
“Fentanyl is the drug that is most driving the big increase in overdose deaths (though other drugs are contributing as well),” Jeff Lancashire, a spokesman for the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, wrote in an email.
Drug users purchasing street versions of popular prescription painkillers are bearing the brunt of the fentanyl epidemic. Buyers unknowingly purchase drugs from dealers who claim it is one thing but those pills may be laced with fentanyl, a move intended to bring buyers back next time to find more of whatever gave them their new and improved high feeling.
“[The cartels are] making these pills look almost identical to real hydrocodone, to real Vicodin, Percocet, Xanax, or Adderall, but they’re fake and they contain fentanyl. And sometimes they contain meth,” said Milgram. “Those pills are meant to look like they’re real pills and they’re not and they’re deadly.”
As an indication of how widespread the tainted street drugs are, 4 out of 10 pills seized and tested by the DEA contained deadly doses of fentanyl.
The demand and lack of a solution
The fentanyl that makes it past law enforcement and onto U.S. streets is increasingly marketed by the cartels on social media platforms. Drug dealers hop on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube to get their illegal products to the public.
“Mexican criminal drug networks are harnessing the perfect drug trafficking tool: social media applications that are available on every smartphone,” Milgram said in a Dec. 16 statement. “They are using these platforms to flood our country with fentanyl. The ease with which drug dealers can operate on social media and other popular smartphone apps is fueling our nation’s unprecedented overdose epidemic.”
On Dec. 15. President Joe Biden sent congressional leaders a letter asking them to enact sanctions against any noncitizens who are involved in manufacturing or smuggling illegal drugs.
“I find that international drug trafficking — including the illicit production, global sale and widespread distribution of illegal drugs, the rise of extremely potent drugs such as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, as well as the growing role of internet-based drug sales — constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States,” Biden wrote.
Families Against Fentanyl, a group tracking the effects of fentanyl on the public, has called for the Biden administration to designate the substance as a weapon of mass destruction. In a letter sent to the White House in July 2021, FAF Founders James and Valorie Rauh and former senior administration officials, including former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, urged Biden to follow through on his campaign promise to “stem the flow of illicit drugs like fentanyl.”
“We fully support this sound approach and urge you to bring the federal government’s full, coordinated force to bear in mitigating this continuing and growing threat. We strongly recommend that you declare fentanyls — in sufficient quantities and specific configurations — to be Weapons of Mass Destruction,” FAF and its supporters wrote.
While Washington ramps up its response to the fentanyl epidemic, even more potent synthetic opioids, such as nitazenes, are emerging on the scene as the next giant in the war on drugs.