Seizures of fentanyl at the southern border have spiked over the past 12 months, doubling the amount of the lethal drug confiscated a year earlier, according to a report on Tuesday.
In the period from October 2020 to September 2021, Customs and Border Protection officials seized 11,201 pounds of fentanyl, the Washington Examiner reported.
One kilogram of fentanyl is equivalent to 500,000 lethal doses, the federal government estimates, meaning the seizures represent 2.5 billion doses prevented from entering the country, the report said.
In fiscal year 2020, 4,791 pounds of fentanyl were confiscated.
The increase in seizures is closely connected to the jump in overdose deaths in the US.
“If they’re seizing a lot, it’s because a lot is coming in — because you don’t know the percentage of how much is coming through that they’re actually seizing,” Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, told the Washington Examiner.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, told the newspaper that fentanyl is easier to produce and transport, but much more deadly than other drugs.
“Only a very small concentration of fentanyl is needed in order to produce a high. So, this makes it much easier to bring fentanyl across the border — in smaller, but more potent, quantities than other drugs,” Volkow said in an email.
“Based on the number of drug seizures reported in 2020 for fentanyl, it appears that the illicit drug market did not suffer during the pandemic, but actually expanded,” she continued. “Rising fentanyl availability, decreased access to addiction treatment, increased social and economic stressors, and overburdened health departments collided in 2020 and were associated with a tragic rise in overdose deaths.”
While fentanyl makes up just less than 2 percent of the roughly 625,000 pounds of drugs seized by Border Patrol agents, the report said smuggling the drug is attractive because it is highly addictive and more expensive per gram than other drugs.
“Throughout the pandemic, the dedicated employees of CBP have continued to fulfill the agency’s border security role, seizing more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl in FY 2021,” a CBP spokesman wrote in an email. “The majority of these seizures have occurred in ports of entry where CBP’s Office of Field Operations has seen a 400 percent increase in fentanyl seizures since 2018.”
Most of the fentanyl was discovered while being brought in by vehicles stopped at land ports of entry or found in packages and cargo brought in through seaports and airports.
Sharfstein cautions that while fentanyl seizures are up, the deadly drug also enters the US in other ways, including being added to other drugs.
And drug users might be completely unaware.
“People aren’t overdosing on fentanyl because they want to die — for the most part, I assume. People are overdosing on fentanyl because they don’t know how much fentanyl is in their product,” Dr. David Herzberg, author of ”White Market Drugs: Big Pharma and the Hidden History of Addiction in America” and an associate history professor at the University of Buffalo in New York, told the Washington Examiner.
More than 96,000 people died from drug overdoses between March 2020 and February, an increase of 30 percent from the previous year, the report said, citing the National Center for Health Statistics.
China produces the main ingredient in fentanyl — which is 100 times stronger than morphine — that Mexican drug cartels smuggle into the US.
Cutting off the supply chains and targeting drug cartels would likely not make much of a difference because demand is so high.
“I don’t have a historical example of shutting down a supply chain that resulted in a drug not being available domestically for any substantial length of time,” Herzberg said.
“Start by making the product safer by making sure that people know what they’re getting. And the only way to make it safer and to have people know what they’re getting is to have it in some way, shape, or form, legal. … There are ways that you can set it up so that the people doing the selling recognize their best interest is selling a product,” he said.