U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 1,066% increase in the amount of fentanyl seized in fiscal year 2021 in south Texas, the agency said this week in a press release.
Agents at eight ports from Brownsville to Del Rio seized 87,652 pounds of narcotics, including 588 pounds of fentanyl, a painkiller, CBP said in the release.
The street value of the drugs — which also included marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin — is believed to be $786 million, CBP said.
Fentanyl, the deadliest drug in the United States, is 50 times more powerful than heroin and is extremely cheap to produce, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Frequently, people buy other drugs not knowing they are laced with fentanyl. Just a quarter of a milligram is enough to kill a person.
The U.S. government has seized enough fentanyl this year to give every American a lethal dose, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said at a November White House press briefing. She called the overdose epidemic in the U.S. "a national crisis" that "knows no geographical boundaries, and it continues to get worse."
The CBP report covered drugs confiscated during the 2021 fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021.
Pandemic might have made America's drug epidemic worse
The U.S. drug epidemic exploded while Americans were locked down during the coronavirus pandemic.
From May 2020 through April 2021, more than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's a new record — a near-30% rise from a year earlier and a near doubling over the past five years. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl — 50-100 times more potent than morphine — accounted for the bulk of those deaths, around 64,000.
The drug epidemic grew in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed about 509,000 people in the same period.
"In a crisis of this magnitude, those already taking drugs may take higher amounts and those in recovery may relapse. It's a phenomenon we've seen and perhaps could have predicted," Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told CNN in an earlier report.
Increasing use of the synthetic drug caught the attention of experts before COVID-19 hit, but the pandemic may have exacerbated the problem, Volkow says.
With international travel limited, synthetics that are easier to manufacture and more concentrated were also more efficiently smuggled, she added.
Chemicals used to make the drug are often shipped from China to the U.S. or Mexico. Cartels in Mexico smuggle the drugs into the U.S. The drug can be mailed in shipments of less than a kilogram.
While a Chinese government crackdown on fentanyl has slowed this method, India is another source.
"Fentanyl is being mixed in with other illicit drugs to increase the potency of the drug, sold as powders and nasal sprays, and increasingly pressed into pills made to look like legitimate prescription opioids," the DEA's fentanyl report says.
"Because there is no official oversight or quality control, these counterfeit pills often contain lethal doses of fentanyl, with none of the promised drug," the report says.
The Biden administration put $4 billion from the COVID-19 relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan, toward combating overdose deaths, including expanding services for substance use disorder and mental health.
Biden told reporters in November his administration is also "working to make health coverage more accessible and affordable for all Americans, so that more people who need care can get it."