(The Center Square) - U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Anne Milgram is sounding the alarm about a rise in fentanyl-related mass overdose deaths.
In a memo issued to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, she states, "The DEA is seeing a nationwide spike in fentanyl-related mass-overdose events involving three or more overdoses occurring close in time at the same location. In just the past two months, there have been at least 7 confirmed mass overdose events across the United States resulting in 58 overdoses and 29 overdose deaths. Many of the victims of these mass overdose events thought they were ingesting cocaine and had no idea that they were in fact ingesting fentanyl."
Fentanyl has become the drug of choice of Mexican cartels that control both sides of the U.S. southern border. The cartels are flooding the country with deadly fentanyl and methamphetamine, in part, through illegal immigration, border security officials say. The precursors are shipped from China to Mexican ports, where cartel employees make fake opioid pills or lace other narcotics with the deadly drug. It's less expensive to produce and easier to transport, doesn't require farms or large facilities, and can be compounded in people's homes and garages, then brought north by cartel operatives or illegal immigrants in backpacks.
Fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl are made to look like authentic prescription pills manufactured by pharmaceutical companies and only legally available with a prescription from a doctor. OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin, prescribed to manage pain, often are misused and can be highly addictive. The overdose deaths are occurring because drug dealers are marketing and selling products like cocaine that's laced with fentanyl or fake prescription pills made of fillers and fentanyl, resulting in unaware buyers ingesting them, overdosing and/or dying.
Last October, outgoing DEA El Paso, Texas, Division Chief Kyle W. Williamson said the cartel-driven opioid crisis in the U.S. was the worst it's ever been since he began working for the agency in 1991. His message came after the DEA issued its first urgent public safety alert in six years, warning about the alarming increase of available fake prescription pills containing lethal doses of fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Williamson told the El Paso Times the drug crisis in the U.S. is "the worst it's ever been. There's no good news here. And the amount of methamphetamine and fentanyl coming in right now is unprecedented."
Milgram's warning lists examples of mass incidents of fentanyl-related deaths that recently occurred in Florida, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri and Washington, D.C.
In March, six individuals overdosed in Wilton Manors, Florida, after being exposed to what they thought was cocaine, but the substance they ingested contained fentanyl. In Texas, 21 individuals at a homeless shelter in downtown Austin overdosed after they ingested crack-cocaine and methamphetamine laced with fentanyl. Three died.
Also in March, three people died in Cortez, Colorado, after they ingested what they thought were 30 mg oxycodone pills but were actually fake prescription pills containing fentanyl.
In February, in Omaha, Nebraska, four people overdosed, two of whom died, after ingesting a substance that they thought was cocaine but contained fentanyl. In St. Louis, eight people overdosed, seven of whom died, after ingesting crack-cocaine laced with fentanyl.
In January, in the same city block in Washington, D.C., 10 people overdosed, nine of whom died, after ingesting crack-cocaine laced with fentanyl.
"Fentanyl is highly addictive, found in all 50 states, and drug traffickers are increasingly mixing it with other types of drugs - in powder and pill form - in an effort to drive up addiction and attract repeat buyers," Milgram said. "This is creating a frightening nationwide trend where many overdose victims are dying after unknowingly ingesting fentanyl."
"Fentanyl is driving the nationwide overdose epidemic," she added, pointing to Centers for Disease Control provisional data. The data indicate that an estimated 105,752 people died of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in October 2021. Over 66 percent of the deaths were related to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
"Last year, the United States suffered more fentanyl-related deaths than gun-related and auto-related deaths combined," she said.
The nonprofit group Families Against Fentanyl notes that fentanyl was the top killer in adults between the ages of 18 and 45 in 2020. More adults in this age group died from fentanyl than from suicide, vehicle accidents, and gun violence and the coronavirus.
The DEA is focused on tracing such overdose events to the drug organizations responsible for increasing the domestic supply. It's also asking law enforcement agencies to contact their local DEA agencies to receive guidance, support and to help track such incidents.