Seizures of fentanyl-containing pills have more than quadrupled so far this year in four Southern California counties compared to last year, an increase that authorities said on Tuesday underscores their efforts to keep pace with the continued influx of drugs into the region.
At a Los Angeles Police Board meeting, Los Angeles Police Department officials said that through September more than 904,000 pills containing the powerful synthetic opioid which is more than 50 times more potent than heroin had been confiscated by regional task forces. The figure marked a jump from the roughly 189,000 pills collected by task forces during the same period last year.
The seizures in Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties were made in multiple operations by the region’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Zone task forces, which are overseen by federal and target drug trafficking rings in Southern California. The program also runs working groups in other parts of the country.
Authorities have had to adjust their tactics as Mexican cartels shifted their cocaine smuggling efforts to fentanyl, which offers significantly higher profit margins, LAPD Captain Lillian Carranza told commissioners. A pill costs between 80 cents and $1.50 each to produce and sells for between $15 and $30 a pop on the streets of Los Angeles, officials said.
Thanks in large part to its proximity to the southern border, airports and waterfronts, the Los Angeles area has long been a major distribution center for shipping illegal narcotics across the country, officials say. The pills are largely made in labs in Mexico from chemicals shipped mostly from China, authorities say.
The 2022 figures presented on Tuesday did not include catches made during several recent drug busts, including one last month that netted more than a million fentanyl pills.
Such efforts have saved “many lives,” Carranza, who oversees the gang and narcotics division, said in a follow-up interview.
“I think we’re making a dent, we’re succeeding, especially at the level where we operate, by disrupting the distribution of these drugs by Mexican cartels,” Carranza said. “I don’t think a seizure of, say, a million fentanyl pills is… something that isn’t worth it.”
At the committee’s meeting on Tuesday, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said the operations underscore the need for more action, citing recent statistics showing drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among people. aged 18 to 45.
“It’s not suicide, it’s not street violence – it’s the decision to take a chance on a pill,” he said.
Across Los Angeles County, fentanyl-related deaths, in particular, have continued to rise.
A report from the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that a “rapid increase in drug deaths was primarily propelled” by fentanyl, which in 2016 was a factor in 91 deaths. By 2020, that number had risen to 1,135.
Some experts warn that, while significant, the recent high-profile seizures represent a drop in the bucket of the overall drug trade.
Chelsea Shover, assistant professor-in-residence at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said the issue needs to be looked at from a public health perspective and that escalating law enforcement actions “doesn’t may not be the only primary strategy” for a pre-pandemic crisis.
“Fentanyl pills are very cheap to make,” she said. “You can do a ton of it, so a big bust or a big grab, while arguably large, is only a fraction of what’s out there.”
As fentanyl-related overdoses continue to rise, Shover said, better education about the deadly drug is needed to counter “fantasy,” such as false Halloween social media warnings that traffickers drug companies planned to give kids rainbow-colored fentanyl pills as candy.
Shover said more also needed to be done to remove barriers to treatment, including access to drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, which are used to treat opioid addiction.
“People need to know without it being an alarmist thing that the pills you buy on the street are quite likely to contain or are likely to be fentanyl,” Stover said.
Los Angeles Times