DEA warns of increase in mass-overdose events involving deadly fentanyl

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The Drug Enforcement Administration sent a letter to federal, state, and local law enforcement partners warning of a nationwide spike in fentanyl-related mass-overdose events. Administrator Anne Milgram outlined the current threat and offered DEA support to law enforcement officers responding to these tragic incidents.

“Fentanyl is killing Americans at an unprecedented rate,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. “Already this year, numerous mass-overdose events have resulted in dozens of overdoses and deaths. Drug traffickers are driving addiction, and increasing their profits, by mixing fentanyl with other illicit drugs. Tragically, many overdose victims have no idea they are ingesting deadly fentanyl until it’s too late.”

Fentanyl-related mass-overdose events, characterized as three or more overdoses occurring close in time and at the same location, have happened in at least seven American cities in recent months, resulting in 58 overdoses and 29 deaths. Cities impacted include Wilton Manors, Florida; Austin, Texas; Cortez, Colorado; Commerce City, Colorado; Omaha, Nebraska; St. Louis, Missouri; and Washington, D.C.

Tragic events like these are being driven by fentanyl. Fentanyl is highly-addictive, found in all 50 states, and drug traffickers are increasingly mixing it with other illicit drugs—in powder and pill form—in an effort to drive addiction and attract repeat buyers. These mass-overdose events typically occur in one of the following recurring scenarios: when drug dealers sell their product as “cocaine,” when it contains fentanyl; or when drug dealers sell pills designed to appear nearly identical to legitimate prescriptions but are fake prescription pills containing fentanyl. This is creating a frightening nationwide trend where many overdose victims are dying after unknowingly ingesting fentanyl.

Fentanyl is driving the nationwide overdose epidemic. The CDC estimates that in the 12 months ending in October 2021, more than 105,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, with 66 percent of those deaths related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Last year, the United States suffered more fentanyl-related deaths than gun and auto-related deaths combined.

When a mass-overdose event occurs, DEA stands ready to offer all available resources to assist law enforcement partners, including:

  • Interdicting the substance that is driving the spike in overdoses
  • Investigating and identifying the dealers and larger drug trafficking organizations responsible for the overdose event
  • Providing priority access to all of DEA’s resources, including its labs, chemists, and overdose subject matter experts
  • Assisting with the presentation of the investigation to federal prosecutors
  • Warning the public about the lethal drug threat

In a call with Administrator Milgram on Tuesday, senior law enforcement officials expressed appreciation for DEA’s commitment and partnership to address the increase in fentanyl-related overdoses and the crimes associated with drug trafficking.

“Fentanyl poisonings are at an all-time high,” said Sheriff Mike Milstead, Minnehaha County, South Dakota Chair, Drug Enforcement Committee, National Sheriffs’ Association. “These are not isolated incidents. These are happening in every state and every county in America, leaving behind grieving families. Let us be clear: These poisonings are part of a strategic maneuver by the cartels and they must be stopped. The nation’s Sheriffs appreciate the spotlight that the Drug Enforcement Administration has put on this horrifying spike of fentanyl poisonings and is committed to putting an end to this tragic trajectory.”

“We applaud the DEA for their leadership and initiatives regarding the investigation of mass-overdose events which have been occurring around the country, including in many of our major cities,” said Chief Jeri Williams, Phoenix Police Department Chief, and President of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “These casualties are plaguing our communities, and increased partnership and collaboration with our federal partners is most welcomed in order to stop these tragedies from occurring.”

“We must utilize all available resources to combat the opioid and fentanyl epidemic that continues to plague this great nation, said Sheriff Dennis M. Lemma, President of Major County Sheriffs of America. “In addition to those resources, we must shift how we respond to an overdose, no longer treating them as accidental deaths, but instead as a homicide crime scene. These individuals are victims of a greater problem, and we are committed to putting an end to these deaths.”

DEA is working diligently to trace mass-overdose events back to the local drug trafficking organizations and international cartels responsible for the surging domestic supply of fentanyl. DEA continues to seize fentanyl at record rates. In the first three months of 2022, DEA has seized almost 2,000 pounds of fentanyl and one million fake pills. Last year, DEA seized more than 15,000 pounds of fentanyl—four times the amount seized in 2017—which is enough to kill every American.

Today’s warning expands on DEA’s September 2021 Public Safety Alert on the increase in the availability and accessibility of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl.


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