May 13, 2024 - Health

Seizures of illicit fentanyl pills have surged

Illustration of prescription pill bottle with a siren as the cap.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Nearly half of illicit fentanyl seized by U.S. law enforcement now comes in pill form, representing an alarming shift in the country's illegal drug supply, according to a new federally funded study.

Why it matters: Fentanyl in pill form often looks like common prescription pills including oxycodone, Xanax or Adderall, increasing the risk that people will unknowingly consume the powerful synthetic opioid that's the leading cause of fatal drug overdoses.

The big picture: About 49% of fentanyl intercepted by law enforcement in 2023 came in pill form, compared to 10% in 2017, according to the study in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

  • Fentanyl seizures increased 1,700% in the U.S. over that period.

By the numbers: U.S. law enforcement reported 23,529 seizures of illicit fentanyl in 2023, including almost 116 million individual pills.

  • Nearly 43% of fentanyl seized in 2023 was found in the West, including 85% of confiscated fentanyl pills.
  • Florida, Arizona and California had the greatest number of fentanyl seizures last year.

What they're saying: "We need to educate the people who do not knowingly use opioids that they are at high risk of being exposed to fentanyl if they buy pills in an illicit manner," said Joseph Palamar, lead study author and an associate professor at NYU Langone Health.

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