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Skyrocketing fentanyl seizures illustrate its growing contribution to opioid crisis

By: Paige Winfield Cunningham, The Washington Post
December 6, 2017 Updated: December 6, 2017 at 10:55 am
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Fentanyl tablets seized in a 2016 raid in Calgary. Photo courtesy Calgary Police.

U.S. border patrol agents snagged about two pounds of fentanyl in 2013. This year, they seized nearly 1,500 pounds of the deadly substance.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is many times more potent than heroin, has exploded onto the nation's illicit drug scene over the past few years - so much so that many experts are identifying it as the most dangerous and widespread culprit in the opioid abuse crisis.

Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security reported a dramatic spike over the past five years in seizures of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs at U.S. ports of entry. Although most of the smuggling attempts occur along the country's border with Mexico, the agency said traffickers are increasingly using international mail, as well.

Here are the report's numbers: In this fiscal year, agents apprehended 1,485 pounds of fentanyl. That's far less than the 5,760 pounds of heroin seized, but only in terms of weight; fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and a seemingly tiny amount can kill someone.

"That's a lot of fentanyl and really quite scary," Bryce Pardo, an analyst and drug expert at consulting firm Botec Analysis, told me.

The potency of fentanyl is one of the main reasons the drug has become so popular among drug dealers lately. The other is that it's much cheaper than heroin; while a kilogram of heroin can cost around $90,000 (according to DEA estimates), the same amount of fentanyl costs more like $3,500 to $7,000, a real bargain in comparison.

Plus, there's a host of Americans who are vulnerable to the drug, many of whom got hooked initially on prescription opioids, perhaps moved to heroin and are now seeking cheaper and stronger versions of heroin laced with fentanyl. Prescription opioid abuse, which claims four times the lives of Americans compared to 15 years ago.

The DHS report doesn't detail how many of the fentanyl seizures are occurring at the border as opposed to in the mail. But the DEA has stated that Mexican drug traffickers are playing a prominent role in the burgeoning problem, often procuring the drug or unrefined versions of it from China (which is a top producer) and then transporting it to the United States.

In August, Mexican authorities made their largest-ever seizure of fentanyl, confiscating around 140 pounds of powder and nearly 30,000 pills that probably were on their way to the United States.

"My guess is that a lot of cartels are starting to jump on this fentanyl bandwagon because it's more profitable," Pardo said.

Many dealers also order fentanyl online - the drug can be used legally for palliative treatments or medical research purposes - and then mix it into a heroin supply or press it into Percocet pills.

As more policymakers focus on opioid abuse - including President Donald Trump, who recently declared it a public health emergency - more people are slowly learning about the dangers and growing pervasiveness of fentanyl. But probably not quickly enough.

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