Illegally made fentanyl fueling historic drug crisis across US

Record amounts of illicit fentanyl have driven accidental and overdose deaths to all-time highs across the country

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The fentanyl crisis, as of summer 2022, is hitting the United States harder than any other drug epidemic in history, according to the DEA and nationwide state law enforcement.

"There's enough fentanyl in the United States to kill every single American with a deadly dose," the DEA tells Fox, "it’s everywhere."

It is not a problem of prescription pills, but the illicit/illegally manufactured raw fentanyl that is often being shipped to the U.S. over a variety of international borders. The supply chain in this industry, like so many others, also appears to begin in China. 

"In Mexico, criminal drug trafficking networks, we often refer to them as cartels, they're sourcing chemicals from Chinese chemical companies - unregulated companies mostly," according to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. Once those raw materials make their way to Mexico, she says that is "where they're actually manufacturing [the] illegal fentanyl, and methamphetamine, that's then flooding into the United States."

CALIFORNIA TEEN'S DEATH FROM FENTANYL UNDERSCORES DANGERS OF SOCIAL MEDIA DRUG MARKETS

One hundred fourteen pounds of pure, powdered fentanyl seized by the Colorado State Patrol on June 20. Authorities believe this is the biggest seizure in the state, and enough to kill up to 31 million people. (courtesy: COLORADO STATE PATROL)

One hundred fourteen pounds of pure, powdered fentanyl seized by the Colorado State Patrol on June 20. Authorities believe this is the biggest seizure in the state, and enough to kill up to 31 million people. (courtesy: COLORADO STATE PATROL)

For local law enforcement, even in states without any international borders, the uptick has been staggering. In just the first half of 2022, Captain Bill Barkley says he and the Colorado State Patrol’s Smuggling Trafficking Interdiction Section have "seized over 367 pounds of fentanyl, which is a 389% increase over last year."

A map showing the flow of illicitly manufactured fentanyl into the United States, according to the DEA. (2019)

A map showing the flow of illicitly manufactured fentanyl into the United States, according to the DEA. (2019) (SOURCE: DEA)

Mexico may be hundreds of miles away, but Captain Barkley adds that "the majority of our seizures [in Colorado] come from the cartels in Mexico."

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While Captain Barkley was filming with Fox, a K-9 unit was dispatched to a traffic stop just 25 miles up I-70. While Barkley was inside with cameras rolling, members of his section were seizing 7.5 pounds of heroin, and 1,200 pills containing fentanyl, from a vehicle they determined was headed to Denver.

While Fox was interviewing CO State Patrol Captain Bill Barkley on June 29, 2022, members of his smuggling & trafficking section were out seizing 7.5 lbs. of heroin and 1,200 pills containing fentanyl. (courtesy: CO STATE PATROL)

While Fox was interviewing CO State Patrol Captain Bill Barkley on June 29, 2022, members of his smuggling & trafficking section were out seizing 7.5 lbs. of heroin and 1,200 pills containing fentanyl. (courtesy: CO STATE PATROL)

The good news, Barkley says, is that "we're seizing more narcotics than ever before on our highways." However, on the flip side, he adds that it "is also alarming to think that we only get a fraction of what's flowing in… every hour of every day."

For North Carolinians like Attorney General Josh Stein, the fentanyl crisis is taking a much more grim toll. "Nearly three quarters of all deaths are linked to fentanyl," Stein says. Making matters worse, however, is the fact that "it’s killing America’s youth… More than three quarters of all teens who are dying of overdoses have fentanyl in their system, which is a likely cause of that overdose."

A report in March from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services notes that in particular, illicitly manufactured fentanyl is what’s driving these numbers. "In 2020, more than 70% of overdose deaths in the state likely involved illicitly manufactured fentanyl, often in combination with other substances," the report reads. 

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That same month, Stein co-authored a letter to Snapchat, along with a bipartisan group of some 44 states attorneys general, arguing the social media giant could be doing more to help in this crisis. When asked for a progress report, Stein told Fox bluntly: "I think the social media platforms are taking the issue seriously, but not seriously enough."