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Influx of deadly street fentanyl reaching the U.S. continues to grow, research shows

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Drug deaths in the U.S. appear to be leveling off, and that's good news. But the avalanche of deadly street fentanyl reaching the U.S. continues to grow. That's according to new research published this morning. Federal researchers and law enforcement officials are acknowledging their efforts have so far failed to slow the smuggling of fentanyl. The drug is produced by criminal drug networks in China and Mexico. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us now, Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Brian, you have been reporting for months now, telling us that the fentanyl crisis is grim. So tell us what's new in these reports.

MANN: Well, there are actually two new reports out showing the supply of illicit fentanyl smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico has surged beyond anyone's expectations. Research in the International Journal of Drug Policy published today found an increase of more than 2,300%. That's from 2017 through last year. Often, this fentanyl, Juana, is made to look like counterfeit prescription pills, which means they catch people off guard. Doctor Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says the amount of fentanyl seized by U.S. law enforcement - nearly 115 million fake pills in 2023 alone -is just the tip of the iceberg.

NORA VOLKOW: We know for certain there's still a lot of fentanyl that is not being caught because we know that a lot of people are dying. So the numbers, the magnitude is surprising how fast it went up.

MANN: One emergency room physician in Los Angeles, Dr. Samuel Beckerman, told NPR it's like Russian roulette. One pill might be enough to make you stop breathing, he said, while another pill might just be enough to get you high. So for people suffering addiction, just taking one pill could kill you. They never know what they're getting.

SUMMERS: The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration also released a new report on efforts to stop fentanyl from entering the country. Tell us about that report.

MANN: Yeah. The U.S. is spending billions of dollars targeting Mexican drug cartels. That means border security, drug busts, arrests and tougher prison sentences. They're also doing more to target these Chinese criminals who are smuggling the chemicals used to make fentanyl. And more and more fake pills are being seized. That's good news. But what this report found is that fentanyl is so cheap and easy to make that the gangs just keep churning out more. The new DEA report found fentanyl is still easy to find. It's easy to buy everywhere in the U.S.

SUMMERS: And, Brian, you have been spending time in a lot of communities across the United States, talking to people, talking to families about the impact of fentanyl on their lives. What have you been hearing?

MANN: It's painful. You know, we're seeing more than 100,000 Americans die a year from these drug overdoses, most of it caused by fentanyl and methamphetamines. That's another synthetic drug the cartels are pushing really hard right now. They're also pushing this deadly additive, xylazine, that's mixed into these drug cocktails that's causing these terrible flesh wounds. I spoke about this with Dr. Elizabeth Krans. She's an addiction specialist at Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh. A lot of her patients are struggling to survive as these street drugs grow more toxic.

ELIZABETH KRANS: The game really changed. It just was so devastating. It's so much more potent. And now we're going through another phase of xylazine and other adulterants. Essentially, all we're trying to do is desperately try to keep up with what is happening with the drug supply.

MANN: And that's really the mood right now, Juana, in the public health and in the law enforcement communities. Drug deaths have leveled off a bit, but everyone's worried about what's coming next in the street supply. And meanwhile, these cartels and the drug gangs - they're earning billions of dollars a year. And according to this new DEA report, the cartels are more powerful and more sophisticated than ever before.

SUMMERS: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann. Thank you.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "COMING OF AGE (FEAT. MEMPHIS BLEEK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.