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DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division reports highest number of fentanyl seizures in 2023

"While one pill can kill, it's also just as important to note that one conversation can save," said DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division Acting Special Agent in Charge David Olesky.
DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division Announces Record Number of  Fentanyl Pill Seizures in 2023
Posted at 5:27 PM, Jan 31, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-31 19:27:21-05

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Rocky Mountain Field Division, which covers Colorado, seized more fentanyl pills in 2023 than any other year on record, the agency announced on Wednesday.

Nationally, the U.S. DEA seized more than 77 million fentanyl pills and nearly 12,000 pounds of fentanyl powder in 2023 — the most fentanyl seized by the DEA in a single year, said Acting Special Agent in Charge David Olesky during a press conference in Denver on Wednesday afternoon. It is now the leading cause of death for Americans between 18 and 45 years old, he said.

DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division Announces Record Number of  Fentanyl Pill Seizures in 2023

A large poster next to him illustrated how much fentanyl (in pill-equivalents) had been seized in 2023 by the U.S. DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division, which covers 450,000 square miles throughout multiple states:

  • Colorado: 2.61 million pills (425.60 kilograms of fentanyl)
  • Utah: 664,000 pills (119.30 kilograms of fentanyl)
  • Montana: 106,500 pills (17.87 kilograms of fentanyl)
  • Wyoming: 23,700 pills (4.58 kilograms of fentanyl)

This totals 3.4 million pills seized, or more than 386 million deadly doses, the DEA said. This number is a sharp increase from 2021, when the DEA seized about half a million pills, and 2022, when it seized 1.9 million.

DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division reports highest number of fentanyl seizures in 2023

Olesky said the seizures in Colorado span the entire state, from the western slope to southern Colorado to the Denver metro area. He said the two main arteries for drug trafficking in the state are Interstate 25 coming up from the south and Interstate 70 coming from the west. Cartels carry not only fentanyl, but methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin from the southwest border, he said.

He gestured at a table next to him during the press conference, which displayed more than 60,000 fentanyl pills that were seized in the past week around the Denver metro area.

DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division Announces Record Number of  Fentanyl Pill Seizures in 2023

"Two years ago, that would have been considered a very significant amount — it might have been a record two, three years ago for the state," Olesky said.

Now, it's a regular occurrence, he said.

"This significant increase of fentanyl seizures across the region certainly demonstrates the outstanding investigative work that our agents are doing," he said. "But this is not cause for celebration."

He said the numbers the DEA released Wednesday are a sobering look at how cartels have flooded the drug in Colorado communities. He said the DEA is dedicated to focusing on the two groups — the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel — most responsible for trafficking fentanyl into the United States.

While the pills seized likely prevented future deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is predicting record numbers of drug poisonings for 2023. Their most-recent numbers, which are from June, show 112,323 American deaths, Olesky said. Fentanyl is the cause for almost 70% of those drug poisonings.

Olesky urged Coloradans to have the tough conversations with family and friends to prevent a tragedy.

"While one pill can kill, it's also just as important to note that one conversation can save," he said.

The fentanyl on streets today is more deadly than ever, he said. In 2023, DEA laboratory testing showed that about seven out of every 10 pills contained a potentially lethal dose. He said two years ago, that statistic was four out of 10 pills.

"It's a reminder that it's only two milligrams of fentanyl, which is considered a potentially lethal dose or the amount which can fit on the tip of a pencil," he said.

But drug traffickers don't care about that, Olesky said. They care about one thing: greed.

That comes with another concern, though, because the price of the drug has plummeted. Olesky said the price for a pill in the Denver metro area, as well as across much of the state, is cheaper than a candy bar. While each pill costs the cartels three or four cents to produce, they sell it for 80 cents to $1 per pill, Olesky said.

"We're talking about the profits that they make — this is not a million-dollar industry. This is a multi-billion-dollar industry," he said.

Plus, social media has eased how people can connect with the drug traffickers.

"With a few clicks of a button, an individual can end up having this product delivered to their front door steps," he said.

In March 2023, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser released a 182-page report titled “Social Media, Fentanyl & Illegal Drug Sales” to illustrate the dangerous role social media has in acquiring drugs. The report pointed to a 2019 study that strongly suggests social media is gaining traction as a convenient marketplace for illicit drugs, particularly among young people. Dealers typically use code words to communicate.

Olesky noted that fentanyl is often in the shape of a small, blue pill, but the DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division warned at the beginning of last summer that the drug now could come in a variety of colors and was marketed as a party drug. In other cases, agencies have recovered fentanyl in other forms, like powder and nasal spray.

"The cartels are going to continue to adapt to the trends and the alerts that we put out there from the DEA," Olesky said.

Currently, the DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division has 48 active investigations focused on fentanyl throughout its four states. Those are focused not only on the cartels, but their relationships with organized crime rings in Colorado.

It will take more than only securing the border or only increasing law enforcement to stop the trafficking, Olesky said.

"There is no one solution to this... There's also the education piece, the outreach piece, the mental health side," he said. "We're not going to start turning the tide on this until we realize there is the mental health side, the education side, and certainly in the great work we do at DEA, there's the law enforcement piece to this."

The DEA has a website — DEA.gov/onepill — where people can learn about fentanyl trends, how to talk to kids about drugs and more.

Amid a large rise in fentanyl-related poisoning deaths, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed HB22-1326 in May 2022 to make it a felony for someone to possess a gram or more of a drug containing fentanyl, which also included stiffer penalties for distribution and a host of addiction treatment and prevention services. It was passed in the final two hours of the legislative session that year.