One of the latest news releases from the US National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that law enforcement seizures of pills containing fentanyl increased dramatically between 2018-2021. According to the study, “The number of individual pills seized by law enforcement increased nearly 50-fold from the first quarter of 2018 to the last quarter of 2021 and the proportion of pills to total seizures more than doubled, with pills representing over a quarter of illicit fentanyl seizures by the end of 2021. The study also found an increase in the number of fentanyl-containing powder seizures during this time.”
As expected, with the increase of fentanyl-laced pills entering the market comes an increase in overdoses and deaths as many who take the drugs are not aware that the heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine they think they are using may actually be fentanyl, or has been adulterated or contaminated with fentanyl. As the NIH reported, “Because fentanyl is about 50 times more potent than heroin and a lethal dose may be as small as two milligrams, using a drug that has been laced with fentanyl can greatly increase overdose risk.”
And those who think they are getting a less expensive medically needed drug may be unknowingly ingesting a powder that will cause an overdose or worse. In testimony before the Subcommittee on Health, Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, it was noted that there are indeed fentanyl products and analgesics used medically during surgery, for treating post-surgical pain, and managing pain in opioid-tolerant patients. These drugs are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances are also made and distributed illegally; it is the illicitly-manufactured fentanyl, fentanyl related substances, and other synthetic opioids that are driving the sharp rise in overdose deaths in the United States.
From the NIDA release:
“People who purchase counterfeit drugs, such as illicit oxycodone, hydrocodone, or benzodiazepines may be at risk for unintentional exposure to fentanyl, which is associated with increased risk of overdose death. Further, people who use these types of pills are less likely to have a tolerance built to opioids, and when coupled with the sedative effects of non-fentanyl opioids or benzodiazepines, may further increase risk of overdose and death.”
An author of the study believes that to address the overdose crisis, you need real-time, high-quality drug surveillance data to inform the public health response.
There is technology now that can provide on-the-spot, presumptive narcotics testing when law enforcement suspects illicit drugs including fentanyl is present – whether it’s analyzing shipments coming into the country, or responding to an overdose call.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses handheld narcotics analyzers, to help analyze and identify drugs and their precursors. These analyzers used at ports, borders, and even mail facilities, help keep these deadly substances off the streets and can also help keep CBP agents safe from exposure.
Some of these material identification devices utilize more than one technique to quickly and successfully identify – within minutes – unknown substances including fentanyl. The Raman technology enables a user to conduct non-contact and non-destructive analysis of samples in transparent and translucent containers without the need to open them and manipulate each sample, thus increasing user safety. Conversely, although FTIR spectroscopy requires direct contact analysis, it is more efficient and safer when identifying dark-colored substances such as black tar heroin. It also has fewer chemical limitations and performs better on substances that suffer from very high levels of fluorescence, which sometimes obscures Raman spectra. Both technologies thus complement each other as well as confirm results obtained by each other.
For drug-related overdose occurrences, police departments and first-responders also utilize handheld narcotics analysis technology to identify unknown substances in the field and protect their officers from being harmed. These tools can identify key drugs of abuse as well as common cutting agents, precursors and fentanyl, numerous fentanyl analogs including carfentanil, as well as the precursors, NPP and ANPP. Once a substance is analyzed, full results are automatically stored for reporting.
The global drug problem is becoming increasingly more deadly with the trafficking of illicit drugs laced with fentanyl. Law enforcement officials are trying to get ahead of the crisis by quickly identifying suspected narcotics in the field to help keep drugs off the streets and protect the communities they serve.
Visit the Safety and Security Threat Detection section of the Thermo Fisher Scientific website.