Seizures of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl by customs agents in the United States have skyrocketed, underscoring potential shifts in drug markets amid the country’s ongoing opioid crisis.
Over 2.5 tons of illicit fentanyl was seized nationwide between October 2020 and March 2021, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced on April 9, representing a 322 percent increase year-on-year.
Since 2014, fentanyl has slowly become the prominent drug driving the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States as authorities have cracked down on prescription opioids, leading users to seek out cheaper options like heroin. But heroin has increasingly been displaced by fentanyl, according to anti-drug officials. CBP agents seized just under 1.2 tons of heroin during the last six months, less than half the amount of captured fentanyl.
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Drug seizures are not a perfect marker for prevalence, but there are other indicators that suggests fentanyl is becoming increasingly prominent in US drug markets. The number of fentanyl samples sent to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System for testing jumped from around just 5,500 in 2014 to more than 100,000, in 2019, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) 2020 Drug Threat Assessment.
Fentanyl is also increasingly being trafficked to the United States in counterfeit pill form, according to the DEA. In one March 2021 bust in Minnesota, authorities seized more than 55,000 fentanyl pills as part of a 6.2-kilogram seizure. A lethal dose of fentanyl can contain just two milligrams of the drug.
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Fentanyl is now so prominent in the United States that both law enforcement and public health officials report that the deadly synthetic opioid is “supplanting or has surpassed a significant portion of the pre-established heroin market,” according to the DEA.
Mexico’s organized crime groups have emerged as crucial links in the fentanyl production chain, sourcing precursor chemicals from China and India to produce the drug in clandestine mega-labs already set up for manufacturing methamphetamine.
Specifically, US law enforcement says that the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) are “significantly involved” in fentanyl production, among other groups. Last year alone, Mexican authorities seized some 1.3 tons of fentanyl, an astonishing 486 percent uptick from the 222 kilograms confiscated in 2019, according to the Defense Ministry.
Mexican drug trafficking organizations will “almost certainly have the greatest direct impact” on the US fentanyl market moving forward because of their “increased capacity and capabilities for fentanyl production [and] adaptations to restrictions on precursor chemicals,” according to the DEA.
That said, fentanyl is just as easily purchased online and shipped directly to dealers and consumers. The US Postal Service has even served this purpose. In 2018 and 2019 alone, the Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) received and recorded 66,042 pieces of mail containing more than 65 tons of illicit drugs, according to a November 2020 Inspector General report on USPIS’s handling and oversight of suspected drug parcels.