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New study shows the rising prevalence of fentanyl pills

Research shows how a major shift in the drug supply could be leading to an increasing amount of overdose deaths.
Pills laced with fentanyl
Posted at 7:47 PM, Jul 05, 2024

A new study by NYU Langone, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, shows how fentanyl has taken over America's illegal drug supply. It has happened fast.

Law enforcement seizure data shows that illicit fentanyl seizures grew more than 1700% in the 6 year span from 2017 to 2023.

Fentanyl pills specifically made up nearly half of fentanyl seizures in 2023, at 49%. Compare that to 10% in 2017.

As much as 85% of these seizures are happening in the western part of the United States.

A lead researcher on the study, Dr. Joseph Palamar, said that though the numbers are staggering, they're not surprising given recent trends.

"A couple of years ago, most fentanyl was in powder form. The way it began was fentanyl started creeping up into the heroin supply …then pills started coming around — particularly in the West, and pills introduced fentanyl in a whole different manner to people," he said.

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Palamar says fentanyl in pill-form changes the game, so to speak, in terms of who is now able to obtain it.
Pills are easier to take or to smoke, so there's no need to figure out how to use a needle. Also, because many fentanyl pills are meant to look like legitimate pills, it's easier for people who don't necessarily know they're taking fentanyl to find it, ingest it and overdose.

"My fear in particular is that there are young people who are trying to get their hands on pills like Adderall or Oxy or Xanax and if they buy them illegally, they don't know that they could have fentanyl in them — just a few milligrams is enough to kill a teenager," Palamar said.

Rob Sullivan oversees multiple drug detox programs in northwestern Washington state, and has been in the industry for 20 years.

He says he and his colleagues have noticed that it takes longer for someone to detox from fentanyl — prompting requests to insurance companies to extend detox stays. He also says people have a harder time completing detox, and many times people detox without even realizing they've taken fentanyl.

"We see right now, we're about 66% complete. And 44% don't complete. Whereas we used to be higher when it was just regular opioids, because people knew what to expect, meaning clients, and also professionals knew what to expect," Sullivan said.

"Whereas with fentanyl — so different, and so powerful — that it's really, it's a different ballgame than what it was," he said.

Palamar hopes that these findings spark a stronger emphasis on drug use prevention

"We need people to be educated about fentanyl and the associated risks, particularly the people who have not used fentanyl. I worry about people starting fentanyl, and I also worry about people being unintentionally exposed to fentanyl — especially young people."