Fentanyl Floods Into America at an Unprecedented Rate

Paramedics are helping with overdose
Photo by Mikhail Nilov/Pexels.com

The fact that America is struggling with copious supplies of fentanyl is not news. What is news is that the quantity of this deadly drug found within our borders has been increasing by leaps and bounds and continues to do so.

Every year, the Drug Enforcement Administration reports on the quantities of illicit fentanyl seized. It comes into the country in the form of counterfeit pills that simulate medications like oxycodone, Adderall, Xanax or other drugs, or as bags of powdered fentanyl. Once across the border into America, powdered fentanyl may be pressed into more counterfeit pills or mixed into heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine or any other drug sold in powder form.

The DEA gets their information from the National Forensic Laboratory Information System which tests drugs seized on the street and reports on their findings. In their reports from 2014 to 2022, you can see the shocking escalation of fentanyl trafficking.

Here are the number of reports of fentanyl seizures recorded in this system for each year.

  • 2014: 5,541
  • 2015: 15,488
  • 2016: 37,426
  • 2017: 62,081
  • 2018: 89,766
  • 2019: 100,378
  • 2020: 117,045
  • 2021: 153,949
  • 2022: 163,201

These numbers do not reflect the quantity of fentanyl seized, but just the number of reports. The DEA also reports on the number of counterfeit pills and powder taken off the market. We’ll look at some of those reports next.

A Breakdown by Region, Followed by an Appalling Total

In just the Rocky Mountain Division of the DEA, nearly two million pills containing fentanyl were seized, along with 150 pounds of fentanyl powder. That’s enough for 5.8 million fatal doses of this drug.

Fentanyl Pills
Seized fentanyl pills. Image Courtesy of DEA.gov

In the Washington Division of the DEA (Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia), 160,000 pills and 250 pounds of fentanyl were seized. That was enough to kill 54% of the population in these three areas.

In the El Paso Division, 2.9 million pills were seized, along with 261 pounds of powder. That would have been enough to kill 9 million people.

The DEA also announced its national totals for fentanyl seizures. In all, more than 379 million potentially fatal doses were taken off the street. More than 50.6 million pills and 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder were seized and destroyed.

Experts commonly estimate that only about 10% of the illicit drugs coming into this country or being sold on the street are seized. For the manufacturers and traffickers, these losses are just part of the cost of doing business. There is plenty of manufacturing capacity overseas or across our borders that will keep cranking out more batches of this synthetic opioid.

Why is There So Much Fentanyl on the Street?

Fentanyl has become an extremely big business for several reasons.

  1. No plants are needed to create this product, unlike cocaine, heroin or marijuana. Consider that in 2022, Afghanistan suffered a drought that impacted the opium poppy crop, resulting in a reduction in finished heroin for export. Weather conditions have no impact on the manufacture of fentanyl.
  2. As long as precursor chemicals can be obtained, a chemical lab has been built and there is a willing chemist, fentanyl can be manufactured with relative ease.
  3. In addition to being relatively easy to make, it is cheap to make.
  4. Fentanyl is an incredibly concentrated product. A potentially lethal dose for a person not habituated to opioid use is about two milligrams, about the equivalent of a couple of grains of salt. A lethal dose of pure heroin is about 30 milligrams. One kilo of fentanyl smuggled into the U.S. is far more valuable and profitable than a kilo of heroin. The group National Immigration Forum summed up the situation this way: “Seizures of heavier, less-potent drugs like marijuana are down while illicit fentanyl, a drug 100 times more potent than morphine, are up significantly… [seizures are] 480 percent higher at the southern border in fiscal year (FY) 2023 compared to FY 2020.”
  5. Small quantities of fentanyl can be mixed into heroin to give that product more potency. Drug dealers have also discovered that they can mix small quantities of fentanyl into cocaine, methamphetamine or any other drug and get their customers hooked on this potent, cheap drug. As a result, some people trying to go to rehab or get medical help are either intoxicated by or addicted to multiple drugs at one time. That can make medical treatment or withdrawal extremely complicated.
  6. Fentanyl can easily be pressed into fake pharmaceutical products that resemble Xanax, generic oxycodone or Adderall. All it takes is a pill press and some coloring and binding material. All these items can be purchased online.

There is a big market for these fake pharmaceutical products on the black market. Many people consider them safer to abuse than street drugs. But thousands of people have been sold counterfeit pills with lethal doses of fentanyl in them, and they lost their lives.

The World After Fentanyl


The world of illicit drug manufacture and trafficking will not and has not stalled with fentanyl. Those manufacturing these intoxicants have branched out into the manufacture of dozens of new drugs. Some are opioids, others are stimulants and still others are functionally similar to cannabis.

Some illicit manufacturers create new formulas because they are cheap and easy to make. Others use new drugs as a way to circumvent American laws banning certain drugs. Until lawmakers learn about these new drugs and get legislation passed to ban them, these novel substances may actually be legal, even if they are deadly.

The Target on America’s Back

America definitely has a problem with opioids. Other countries recognize our problem with opioids and are taking advantage of it. It’s a problem of fairly recent manufacture, however. Prior to the no-hold-barred and unscrupulous marketing of OxyContin in the mid-1990s, our opioid problem was troublesome but comparatively minor. A recent report from the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking notes:

“The rise in illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioid misuse and related deaths has its origins in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the prescription opioid painkiller OxyContin in 1995. Since then, the number of fatal drug overdoses has steadily climbed. OxyContin and other prescription opioids were falsely marketed as an easy, nonaddictive fix for pain without an appreciation of a patient’s other conditions, such as depression, trauma, and anxiety, which could drive the drugs’ misuse. Prescription opioid dependence and addiction increased dramatically in the United States, and traffickers and other criminals exploited the opportunities presented.

“People with substance-use disorder, unable to continue obtaining prescription drugs, often turned to heroin and then—sometimes unknowingly—to powerful synthetic opioids.”

“People with substance-use disorder, unable to continue obtaining prescription drugs, often turned to heroin and then—sometimes unknowingly—to powerful synthetic opioids. In less than a decade, illegal U.S. drug markets that were once dominated by diverted prescription opioids and heroin became saturated with illegally manufactured synthetic opioids.”

And from those roots, a vast market was created for fentanyl.

Resolving America’s Synthetic Opioid Problem

Helping young man with addiction

As the Commission’s report also notes, “The difficult truth is that there is no easy solution to the synthetic opioid problem.”

Those who have become addicted will need plenty of one-on-one work and support to help them break the grip of addiction. The drug rehab programs offered should be able to present good records of drug-free success or lose funding. Americans who are not yet addicted but are using drugs must be convinced of the danger so that they cease drug use. Many other Americans (mostly young ones), who are not yet using drugs must be educated—thoroughly, repeatedly, effectively—on the trap that lies ahead for many people who use drugs.

At the same time, there are effective ways to redirect youth into more positive activities. Years ago, Icelandic teens had some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse in the world. Innovative programs provided teens with more opportunities for sports, music, dance and other recreation. Parents were encouraged to spend more quality time with their children. As a result, teen drug and alcohol abuse statistics plummeted. It is possible to take effective action with youth.

It will take concerted action at many levels of American society to overcome this problem. There are few priorities that are more important than saving 100,000 American lives each year.


  • “DEA Rocky Mountain Division Announces Record Fentanyl Seizures in 2022.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2023. DEA
  • “DEA Rocky Mountain Division Announces Record Fentanyl Seizures in 2022.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2023. DEA
  • “DEA El Paso Division Announces the Seizure of Over 9 Million Deadly Doses of Fentanyl in 2022.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2023. DEA
  • “Drug Enforcement Administration Announces the Seizure of Over 379 Million Deadly Doses of Fentanyl in 2022.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2022. DEA
  • “Opium Cultivation in Afghanistan.” United National Office on Drugs and Crime, 2022. UNODC
  • “Illicit Fentanyl and Drug Smuggling at the U.S.-Mexico Border: An Overview.” National Immigration Forum, 2023. NIF
  • “Drug Snapshot, June 2023.” DEA, 2023. DEA
  • “Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking Final Report.” Rand Corporation, 2022. Rand


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.