Fentanyl becoming deadlier, federal drug agency warns 

Fentanyl file photo

By Jack Phillips 
Contributing Writer 

The Drug Enforcement Agency has warned that fentanyl coming into the United States is becoming more deadly. 

In a report released last week, the DEA said that there is now a “higher average purity in pills containing fentanyl” smuggled into the U.S. by Mexican drug cartels. 

“In 2022, the average fentanyl pill contained 2.4 milligrams of fentanyl, ranging from a low of .03 mg to a high of 9 mg,” the agency wrote in its 2024 National Drug Threat Assessment, noting that a lethal dose is about 2 milligrams. 

The DEA added that its “forensic laboratory results documented that approximately seven out of 10 fake pills contain a deadly dose of fentanyl, up from four in 10 pills in 2021.” 

The purity of powdered fentanyl is on the rise, too, according to the agency. The average purity of powder samples was 19.2% in 2022, representing a 33% increase since 2021. 

The figures suggest that the threat posed by illicit fentanyl to users is increasing, said the DEA. 

Two Mexican criminal syndicates — the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels — are primarily responsible for bringing the drug into the U.S., with the report noting that they manufacture the drugs with chemicals from China. 

“These two Cartels are global criminal enterprises that have developed global supply chain networks. They rely on chemical companies and pill press companies in China to supply the precursor chemicals and pill presses needed to manufacture the drugs,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement accompanying the report. 

“They operate clandestine labs in Mexico where they manufacture these drugs, and then utilize their vast distribution networks to transport the drugs into the United States.” 

The DEA said that local gangs in major U.S. cities are partially to blame for the rise in overdose deaths. 

“Some gang members and independent traffickers are so prolific they have established direct contact with the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartel-connected wholesalers and risen from street-level dealers to regional-level suppliers,” the report said. 

“Just like their Mexico-based criminal counterparts, neighborhood-based crews, local dealers, and gang members endanger U.S. communities by selling fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs, and committing shootings, murders, carjackings, assaults and robberies,” the DEA said. 

Illegal fentanyl killed about 38,000 Americans in the first half of 2023, while synthetic opioids were involved in more than 74,000 overdose deaths in 2022. 

The DEA report comes just weeks after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 108,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2022. 

The female overdose death rate declined for the first time in five years, but the male overdose death rate continued to inch up, the report said. Males account for about 70% of U.S. overdose deaths. 

Around the same time, the CDC released a study finding that smoking has surpassed injecting as the most common way of taking drugs in U.S. overdose deaths. 

Some early research has suggested that smoking fentanyl is somewhat less deadly than injecting it, and any reduction in injection-related overdose deaths is a positive, said the study’s lead author, Lauren Tanz, a CDC scientist who studies overdoses. 

But “both injection and smoking carry a substantial overdose risk,” and it’s not yet clear if a shift toward smoking fentanyl reduces U.S. overdose deaths, she said. 

Over the past two decades, the number of U.S. overdose deaths has risen almost every year and continued to break annual records — making it the worst overdose epidemic in American history. 

In March, the White House announced that it would launch a new effort to deal with the U.S. overdose epidemic, issuing a “nationwide call-to-action to stakeholders” to provide more access to opioid-reversal drugs like naloxone, more commonly known as Narcan. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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