Law enforcement seizing a lot more fentanyl pills, especially in West, study says

There’s been a dramatic spike in the number of fentanyl pills seized by law enforcement across the United States, especially in the West, according to a new study that looks at the past six years.

The study, released by experts at New York University and the University of Florida in the International Journal of Drug Policy, found the percentage of fentanyl seizures in pill form nationwide increased from 10.3% in 2017 to 49% in 2023. Last year, more than 115 million pills were seized, compared to over 71 million in 2022.

The pills are often made to look like legitimate prescription medications, such as Xanax or Adderall, but are far deadlier.

The shift from powder to pills suggests that “the illicit drug landscape has rapidly changed,” said study lead author Joseph J. Palamar, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health.

In the West, 77.8% of seizures were in pill form. Law enforcement seizures of fentanyl overall increased the most in the West, too — both in pill form and powder. In Washington, just over 4 million pills were seized in 2023, or about 3.6% of the total number of seized pills nationwide.

“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,” said Palamar in NYU Langone Health News.

The study is yet another piece of evidence that drug trends move from eastern states to western. The opioid epidemic has historically hit eastern states hardest, but appears to be worsening in the West. Last year, the highest number of seizures — both powder and pill — occurred in Florida, followed by Arizona and California.

California appears to be driving the high numbers among the 13 states in the West: The state saw the largest number of pills seized, more than 38 million, followed by Arizona, Colorado, Washington and Oregon, where 3.8 million pills were seized in 2023.

More fentanyl being seized in the West is “likely due to its proximity to the Mexican border,” the study authors write. Declining availability of heroin in the West may also be turning people who use drugs to fentanyl, according to the researchers.

“While unintentional exposure to fentanyl through pills containing the drug have led to overdoses, the availability of illicit fentanyl pills has led many people who use opioids to skip the traditional ‘stepping-stone’ of heroin before initiating fentanyl,” the study says.

Fentanyl pills are incredibly cheap and were selling for as little as 50 cents a pill last summer in Washington, the Standard reported. Treatment is more difficult when pills are so inexpensive and easily accessible, too, according to addiction specialists.

The study authors say they hope the research will help inform local overdose prevention and harm reduction efforts.

Washington State Standard , like Oregon Capital Chronicle, is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: [email protected]. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

STORY TIP OR IDEA? Send an email to Salem Reporter’s news team: [email protected].

Grace Deng - Washington State Standard