Over the past four years, the number of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl that have been seized by US law enforcement jumped by 4,850%, according to a new study, underscoring how an alarming surge in the deadly drug is putting people at increasing risk for accidental overdose.
The study by a consortium of academic researchers, led by New York University, was released on Thursday. Using a first-of-its-kind, real-time analysis of federal data, it found that more than 2m fake pills were seized by officials in the last quarter of 2021 alone – up from 42,000 in the first quarter of 2018. Researchers also found that the number of individual seizures involving fentanyl pills increased by 834%.
The authors say this reflects the huge supply of these pills, which criminal drug networks manufacture to look like legitimate pharmaceutical tablets such as Percocet, Xanax, and Adderall, being imported into the US and sold on the streets.
“These look just like prescription pills – that’s the scary part,” said the study’s lead author, Joseph Palamar, professor of population health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. He said he worries about people who dabble in recreational drugs getting hit with deadly doses of fentanyl-tainted drugs. “One pill that contains fentanyl literally can kill you.”
The study comes at a time when the number of overdose deaths in the US has exploded to more than 100,000 a year due to the huge amounts of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids saturating the nation’s drug supply. Fentanyl is as much as 100 times more potent than morphine and, as Palamar notes, one small baggie of the stuff can contain enough of the drug to kill hundreds of people.
In a two-month period in 2021, the US Drug Enforcement Agency announced it had arrested 810 drug traffickers across the United States and seized enough fentanyl-filled pills to kill more than 700,000 Americans.
Researchers said the number of drug seizures is a reflection of the huge amount of fentanyl on the streets and warned of the dangers it can pose to unknowing members of the public, particularly young people who may be unwittingly buying fentanyl-tainted pills online or from friends.
“Pills can disguise the risk,” said study coauthor Dr Daniel Ciccarone, a professor specializing in addiction medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “A pill can be taken by a college student who is trying to stay up all night to study for an exam and doesn’t know whether his buddy is selling him real Adderall or fake Adderall. A pill can be taken by a kid who goes to a club and thinks he’ll have more fun if he takes the party drug MDMA – and instead he gets fentanyl.”
Ciccarone and Palamar said people should avoid any pill that isn’t prescribed by their own doctor – including medicines given to them by friends or bought over social media or on the street. At the very least, users of illicit drugs should consider testing them with fentanyl detection strips, available through many health departments and needle exchange groups, they said.
“The street pill is now much more dangerous than it was for earlier generations,” said Cicarrone. “That is the problem.”
The study’s innovative methodology analysed real-time federal data on the drugs being seized by law enforcement on streets and at border crossings around the nation, in what researchers hope can become an early warning system for spotting new drug dangers on the market and even heading off overdose deaths.
“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 National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funded the study. “Pills are often taken or snorted by people who are more naive to drug use, and who have lower tolerances. When a pill is contaminated with fentanyl, as is now often the case, poisoning can easily occur.”
Young people have been particularly hard hit by recent drug overdose deaths. An earlier Guardian analysis showed youth under 24 account for the fastest rise in drug deaths, with 7,337 youth dying in 2020 alone.
In California, where fentanyl deaths were rare just five years ago, a young person under 24 is now dying every 12 hours, according to a Guardian analysis of state data through June 2021 – a 1,000% increase over 2018.
Some of the most tragic cases involve teenagers experimenting with pills obtained from social media or friends, which they think are pharmaceutical-grade painkillers or anti-anxiety medications, but which turn out to be deadly doses of fentanyl.
“These kids are being deceived to death,” said Jaime Puerta, who organized the nonprofit Victims of Illicit Drugs to combat fentanyl deaths, after losing his own 16-year-old son to a counterfeit fentanyl pill.
Puerta found his son Daniel Puerta-Johnson unconscious in his bedroom in 2020, after the teenager took what he thought was an Oxycontin pill that he bought over social media. The pill turned out to be fentanyl and left him brain dead, forcing the family to make the heartbreaking decision to remove him from life support.
“Not enough is being done about it,” said Puerta, who has since talked to hundreds of other parents who lost young people to similar drug deaths. “I wish people would see it as what it is. It’s a national security crisis.”
“People think this can’t happen to them, because they don’t have drug addicts in their families,” said Puerta, who wants to see more high school programs educating teenagers on the dangers. “But this is on the doorstep of every family.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism