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May 23, 2022

Fentanyl seizures surge in Pennsylvania as the synthetic opioid displaces heroin, A.G. report says

The drug's growing presence in counterfeit pills has law enforcement and health officials especially worried

More fentanyl was seized in Pennsylvania during the first three months of 2022 than during the entirety of last year, according to a new report from the state attorney general's office. The findings indicate an accelerated shift away from heroin in favor of the cheaper, deadlier synthetic opioid that has now become dominant in the state's drug supply.

The Bureau of Narcotics Investigation, a division of the attorney general's office, analyzed data on drug seizures over the past several years to highlight the extent of fentanyl's presence in Pennsylvania. The drug is often said to be 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. 

Last year, BNI reported about double the amount of seizures of fentanyl compared to heroin across all of its regions in Pennsylvania. This year, there have been 40 times as many fentanyl seizures as there have been heroin seizures. About 1.9 million doses of fentanyl were seized during the first three months of 2022, more than the 1.7 million doses seized in the four-year period from 2017-2020.

For years, the opioid epidemic has been understood primarily in terms of heroin and prescription pills. The rise of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, which are cheaply produced and often laced into counterfeit pills, has contributed to stark increases in reported overdoses and overdose deaths in Pennsylvania and across the country.

In 2020, overdose deaths in Pennsylvania increased by 16.4% from the previous year and rose another 6% last year to 5,438. Every day, an average of 15 Pennsylvania residents have died from an opioid overdose over the last year.

The BNI noted that drug seizures in 2020 were dampened by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fentanyl seizures rose from 12,613 grams that year to 56,309 grams in 2021, which already has been surpassed this year. Seizures of white powder heroin had been as high as roughly 32,306 grams in 2018, but fell to 21,954 grams by 2021 and just 1,500 grams during the first three months of this year.

In Philadelphia, the DEA and PPD each have reported indications of a growing fentanyl supply in the city and a trend away from heroin in the past seven years. Submissions of seized drug samples received by PPD's Office of Forensic Science found a growing share of fentanyl from 2015-2021.

"In 2021, fentanyl made up 27.30% of submissions compared to 0.79% in 2015. In Philadelphia, the largest year to year fentanyl surge within analyzed submissions was from 2016-2017 (2.68%-13.58%) and has steadily increased as heroin continuously declines," the report said.

The attorney general's office said most fentanyl is sourced from Mexican transnational criminal organizations that move drugs across the nation's southwest border. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and California have submitted the most samples containing fentanyl to the Drug Enforcement Agency's National Forensic Laboratory Information System.

The increasing presence of fentanyl in pill form, often disguised to look like prescription drugs, now represents a growing share of seizures in Philadelphia.

The DEA's Philadelphia Field Division reported that the percentage of fentanyl seizures in pill or tablet form comprises more than 20% of their analyzed fentanyl seizures to date in 2022.

Last year, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health warned that "fentanyl is in everything," citing sharp rises in overdose deaths from laced methamphetamine and PCP.

"Its presence in non-opioid drugs and counterfeit pills is especially concerning as individuals who prefer these drugs may have had little exposure to such a potent opioid and may be at an even greater risk for overdose," said Dr. Kendra Viner, director of the health department's Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction division.

The attorney general's report also noted the increasing presence of Xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer used as a cutting agent for heroin and fentanyl, showing up in samples of seized drugs.

"The public must understand that the risk of inadvertent overdose is far higher with fentanyl than heroin and that with the prevalence of this powerful, and easy to conceal, synthetic drug, that risk is everywhere but is especially prevalent in counterfeit pills," the attorney general's report concluded. "Moving forward, efforts to combat Pennsylvania's heroin and opioid overdose epidemic must incorporate and respond to this new development."