Fentanyl seizures in the US have increased by over 1,700%

US — According to a new study, led by experts at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and the University of Florida, the number of illicit fentanyl seizures by law enforcement in the United States has grown by more than 1,700% between 2017 and 2023.

The analysis of this new data also revealed that fentanyl seizures involving pills quadrupled over those six years, with over 115 million pills seized in 2023.

“About half of seized fentanyl is now in pill form, suggesting that the illicit drug landscape has rapidly changed,” said study lead author Joseph J. Palamar, PhD, MPH, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health and deputy director of the National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS).

“Fentanyl in pill form not only makes it easier for people to initiate use, but also increases the chances that people who buy illicit pills could be unintentionally exposed to fentanyl since it is commonly present in counterfeit pills pressed to resemble oxycodone, Xanax, or even Adderall.”

The findings, detailed in a press release by NYE Langone Health, also indicated that fentanyl seizures varied by U.S. region. Fentanyl seizures were initially less common in the West; however, by 2023, the West had the greatest number of all seizures by weight, and 85% of all confiscated fentanyl pills.

It is worthwhile to note that law enforcement drug seizures are used as a “proxy” for drug availability or supply, but do not necessarily indicate the prevalence of illicit drug use.

Palamar and colleagues analyzed annual trends in seizures of pills and powders containing fentanyl using data from the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program from 2017 through 2023. During that time, there were 66,303 seizures, with 67.3% of fentanyl seizures being in powder form and 32.7% in pill form. The total number of fentanyl seizures by law enforcement increased by more than 1,700%.

One study limitation was that investigators were unable to differentiate whether seizures were solely fentanyl, fentanyl combined with other drugs, or fentanyl analogs. Even so, Palamar maintains that the detection of any fentanyl in a drug seizure can be an important indicator of overdose risk.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin, and is involved in approximately two-thirds of all U.S. overdoses. More than 100,000 people continue to die from drug overdoses in the U.S. every year.