Study Shows Shocking Increase in Percentage of Fentanyl Pills Confiscated Over Last Four Years
© AP Photo / Drug Enforcement AdministrationThis photo provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Phoenix Division shows one of four containers holding some of the 30,000 fentanyl pills the agency seized in one of its bigger busts in Tempe, Ariz., in August 2017. Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid.
© AP Photo / Drug Enforcement Administration
Fentanyl in pill form is dangerous, researchers warn, as people who obtain counterfeit pills disguised as oxycodone or alprazolam will be at a greater risk of unintentional exposure to the lethal narcotic, which is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin.
The number of fentanyl pills and powders seized by American law enforcement has jumped from 13.8% in 2018 to 29.2% in 2021, according to a study published by the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal. The study also reported that over 2 million counterfeit pills were seized by authorities in the last three months of 2021 alone.
The study also noted that some 10 million fentanyl pills were confiscated in 2021.
Researchers say this increase in pill seizure reflects the amounts at which it’s being produced by drug traffickers who manufacture fentanyl pills to look like prescription pills such as Percocet, Xanax, and even Adderall.
"Given that over a quarter of fentanyl seizures are now in pill form, people who obtain counterfeit pills such as those disguised as prescription opioids or benzodiazepines in particular are at risk for unintentional exposure to fentanyl," said the study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“These look just like prescription pills, that’s the scary part,” said the study’s lead author, Joseph Palamar, a professor of population health at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine. “One pill that contains fentanyl literally can kill you,” he warns.
But according to experts, some users are actively seeking out the fake prescription meds because they are aware that they contain fentanyl. Washington state’s biennial WA State Syringe Service Program Health Survey found that two-thirds of their respondents used fentanyl “on purpose” and most often in the form of a pill. The remaining third reported their fentanyl use to be an accident.
Caleb Banta-Green, a principal research scientist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says that some fentanyl users may be misguided into thinking that consuming the drug via pill is safer than injecting opioids or heroin. He warns that fentanyl pills are not necessarily safer as the dosage can vary from pill to pill.
Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine, which is a Schedule II narcotic, but the “high” users get from fentanyl is also more fleeting than other drugs, so users end up consuming it more often, sometimes 20 to 30 times a day.
"Every time you're using, you also have a risk of overdose," says Banta-Green. "It's one of the reasons we're seeing these death rates that are so high, because there are so many more opportunities for a person to overdose, because they're using so much more frequently."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the opioid epidemic has been increasing since the late 90s, with an estimated 500,000 people dying between 1999 and 2019 as a result of an opioid overdose. The CDC says that the US has now entered a “third wave” of the opioid epidemic, which began in 2013. This third wave marks the increase in overdose deaths caused by synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.
Recently, synthetic opioid-involved deaths increased 15% between 2018 and 2019. And by 2021, the death toll exploded to over 100,000.
As an example of the drug’s recent growth; deaths were rare in California just five years ago, but now a person in the state who is under the age of 24 is dying every 12 hours due to fentanyl, according to The Guardian’s analysis of state data through June 2021.
“Pills can disguise the risk,” said study co-author Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a University of California at San Francisco professor whose studies focus on addiction medicine. “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.”
Jaime Puerta found his 16 year-old son unconscious in his bedroom in 2020, after his son bought what he believed was an Oxycontin pill. The pill was actually fentanyl and left the teenager brain dead. His family later made the decision to remove him from life support.
Puerta has since then organized the nonprofit Victims of Illicit Drugs (VOID) to offer educational resources in the fight against the spiking death toll caused by fentanyl abuse. VOID is hoping to educate the public through any means possible, including both private and state organizations, on the dangers of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs.
“Not enough is being done about it. I wish people would see it as what it is. It’s a national security crisis,” said Puerta.
“People think this can’t happen to them, because they don’t have drug addicts in their families,” he added. “But this is on the doorstep of every family.”
Banta-Green says tackling this issue would involve a change in the way drug-addiction is viewed, labeling the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency a “necessity.”
“Reconceptualizing opioid-use disorder as an urgent health emergency is necessary,” he told CNN, noting the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, “mentally and financially depressed people are at increased risk for harms associated with opioids, so addressing wellness, poverty and housing are essential to health overall, including opioid-use disorder.”
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