Law Enforcement Seizures of Pills Containing Fentanyl Increase Dramatically

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A recent and alarming development in drug trafficking has dramatically increased the risk for addicts. As a way to capitalize on the rising popularity of addictive prescription pain relievers, clandestine drug labs are now making counterfeit pills, pressing the pills with machines to make the pills look like highly sought after pharmaceutical drugs, but lacing the drugs with fentanyl for extra potency.

Addicts who get these drugs on the black market have no way of knowing if the drugs have fentanyl in them. Addicts may think they’re getting Purdue-manufactured OxyContin when really they’re getting a counterfeit pill laced with fentanyl, a drug far more potent than OxyContin. Because the addict thinks they’re buying OxyContin, they take as much of the drug as they’re used to taking, for OxyContin. But given that fentanyl is significantly more potent, the drug they actually ingest overwhelms the addict’s tolerance for opioids, the addict overdoses, and dies.

The spread of fentanyl into the drug supply has been lethal for thousands of addicts. It is known that illicit fentanyl has been the source of many drug-related deaths from coroner toxicology reports. But we also know that fentanyl has spread like wildfire across the U.S. thanks to law enforcement seizures of illicit drug supplies.

Lethal dose of Fentanyl
Lethal dose of fentanyl.
Image courtesy of

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid drug. It was intended only for very specific medical applications, such as for cancer patients, and patients who had become physically tolerant to other opioids (meaning those opioids no longer had a pain-relieving effect on them, necessitating something stronger like fentanyl). Unfortunately, fentanyl’s application has been significantly broadened to include many other applications. This development is concerning because the further afield that fentanyl is applied to the general population, the more Americans are exposed to it, and the more Americans will become addicted to it.

Fentanyl is quite similar to morphine, but 50 to 100 times more potent. It reacts on the brain in a similar way as other opioids. Fentanyl is extremely addictive, and because the drug is so potent, it can very easily cause an overdose.

Recent Updates from Law enforcement

According to recent research published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence and reported in National Institute on Drug Abuse press releases, seizures of batches of illegally produced fentanyl increased dramatically between 2018 and 2021. It’s important to note that law enforcement agencies are seizing batches of illegally produced fentanyl made by clandestine drug labs, not fentanyl made by pharmaceutical companies. Unfortunately, shortly after pharma companies released fentanyl as a highly potent opioid for Americans with certain medical conditions, drug cartels soon figured out how to copy the drug and make it (or versions of it) in their own labs.

Counterfeit OxyContin and Heroin
Counterfeit OxyContin and Heroin. Image courtesy of

According to recent reports, the number of individual fentanyl-laced pills seized by law enforcement increased nearly 50-fold from 2018 to 2021. Furthermore, the proportion of seized pills that contain fentanyl more than doubled during that period, suggesting illicit fentanyl is spreading into a larger and larger share of the illicit drug supply.

This news is extremely concerning because if the trend is not halted, more drugs will become tainted with illicit fentanyl, putting even more addicts at serious risk. And this isn’t just a problem for counterfeit opioid pills. Already, there are reports of fentanyl being laced into meth and cocaine, with some reports even indicating that fentanyl has been found in batches of marijuana.

Seized fentanyl pills.
Number of Pills Containing Fentanyl Seized by Law Enforcement in U.S., 2018–2021. Source:

According to the research, law enforcement teams across the nation performed 68 seizures of fentanyl-laced pills in 2019 and 635 such seizures in 2021. Further, the total number of fentanyl-laced pills seized rose dramatically during that period, from 42,202 pills seized in 2018 to 2,089,186 pills seized in 2021. Seizures of fentanyl-laced powder also increased, from 424 seizures in 2018 to 1,539 seizures in 2021. The total weight of the seized powders increased from 298.2 kg in 2018 to 2,416 kg in 2021.

“An increase in illicit pills containing fentanyl points to a new and increasingly dangerous period in the United States.”

A dose of fentanyl as small as two milligrams can be fatal. The drug is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, put out a statement warning the American public of the serious harm that addicts put themselves in when they use drugs, given that any drug could now contain a lethal dose of fentanyl. “An increase in illicit pills containing fentanyl points to a new and increasingly dangerous period in the United States. Pills are often taken or snorted by people who are more naïve to drug use and who have lower tolerances. When a pill is contaminated with fentanyl, as is now often the case, poisoning can easily occur.”

The Need for Treatment

The shifting trends of drug addiction in America point to one extremely concerning fact. Although it’s always been dangerous, using drugs is considerably more dangerous now. Today, addicts run the risk of overdosing on fentanyl every time they take a pill that they did not get from a pharmacy. Even drugs that many addicts assume are “safe,” like cannabis, could be laced with fentanyl.

More than anything, these developments indicate the crucial need for addiction treatment. Though the efforts of law enforcement to seize batches of illicit fentanyl laced into counterfeit pills are laudable, law enforcement teams will never be able to capture all illegal drugs. People who suffer from drug addiction today must seek help at qualified drug and alcohol rehab centers as soon as possible. Their lives depend on it.

If you know someone addicted to drugs, please help them enter a qualified residential drug treatment center as soon as possible.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, ICCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.