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Pills containing fentanyl are becoming increasingly common in drug trafficking


There's disturbing new information out today about recent trends in drug use. A new study of police drug seizures shows there's been a massive increase in the traffic of pills that look like legitimate pharmaceuticals but actually contain illicit fentanyl. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste joins us. Hi, Martin.


SNELL: So we've been hearing about the spread of fentanyl for at least a decade now. How much worse have things gotten?

KASTE: Well, so this study was done by researchers who take part in something called the National Drug Early Warning System. And what they did is they looked at drug seizures by law enforcement, which is usually a pretty good indirect measure of what's being sold because the cops do chemical tests on what's in the drugs. And they found that over the last four years, there's been a 50-fold increase in the number of pills that contain the powerful opioid fentanyl. That's 550 times more now than in early 2018. And if you want raw numbers, what that means is the police seized almost 10 million of these pills last year.

SNELL: Fifty - that is a stunning figure. Are there any theories about why this is happening?

KASTE: Well, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, so it's cheap to make. It's easy to smuggle. A very heavy user spends only about $70 a day to consume that drug. But there's something else here. Fentanyl delivers a very powerful high, but it's also very brief. Sometimes this high just lasts for a few minutes, so that means people are consuming it a lot more frequently. We see this increased frequency in all forms of the drug - people ingesting it, smoking it or injecting it. And I saw that for myself recently when I was shadowing a Philadelphia transit police officer. His name is Alex Byers (ph). He works in an area with a lot of drug use, and he told me it's been grim to see how much more frequently users there are injecting themselves now as fentanyl takes over.

ALEX BYERS: You know, we're seeing a lot of individuals who need a lot of medical attention because their flesh is getting eaten away from injecting themselves almost to the point where they have to get their legs, arms amputated.

SNELL: Wow. Has that been confirmed by drug abuse experts that people consume more fentanyl more often?

KASTE: It has. I talked to Caleb Banta-Green, who studies drug use epidemiology at the University of Washington. He wasn't part of this study, but he told me that people sometimes can take fentanyl 20 or 30 times a day.

CALEB BANTA-GREEN: Imagine a super steep, super herky-jerky rollercoaster. That's what you're on if you're a regular user of fentanyl. That's a lot worse than heroin, where you might be using four or six times a day.

SNELL: This study highlights the growth in fentanyl pills especially, so why is that distinction significant?

KASTE: Well, the authors of the study are worried about the fact that these pills look so much like real prescription drugs, like oxycodone. And some people might assume that they're safer because they're pills. But Banta-Green says you still don't know how strong one of these fake pills is going to be. And because you're taking it so often, you're just increasing your odds of an overdose. And you also have to remember that people aren't just swallowing the pills. One thing that's become really common on the West Coast, for instance, is you see people smoking crushed pills off of sheets of tinfoil. In Seattle, for example, now you see scraps of tinfoil where you used to see spent needles on the ground.

SNELL: So more frequent use, more odds of an overdose. Why would people prefer these fentanyl pills to other drugs?

KASTE: Well, there's a lot of debate right now about whether people know what they're taking, whether it's still accurate to say the pills are laced with fentanyl as it's being sneaked in. It is true that some users may not know what's in there, but Caleb Green told me that he's surveyed drug users, and by now most of them know that they are consuming fentanyl. These blue pills are seen as fentanyl in the street. And he says the reason people take them is that fentanyl has just become so dominant in the market. It's simply the cheapest and easiest alternative for an addict. So they take the pills despite the risks.

SNELL: That's NPR's Martin Kaste. Thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.