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Key Takeaways From the DEA’s 2024 National Drug Threat Assessment

Published: May 22, 2024
A photo of Makayla Cox, who died of a fentanyl overdose at age 16, is displayed among other portraits on "The Faces of Fentanyl'' wall, which displays photos of Americans who died from a fentanyl overdose, at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, on July 13, 2022. (Image: AGNES BUN/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) 2024 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA) has been released highlighting just how much work is left to do to address the fentanyl crisis gripping the nation and the drug cartels fueling the crisis. 

According to the report, in the first six months of 2023 alone, more than 38,000 Americans lost their lives due to fentanyl overdoses.

In 2011, an estimated 2,666 fentanyl poisoning deaths occurred in the United States, a number that rose to 19,413 by 2016 and 74,225 by 2022.

“Fentanyl manufactured by the Mexican cartels is the main driver behind the ongoing epidemic of drug poisoning deaths in the United States,” the report says, adding that, “Further complicating the fentanyl threat is the addition of the dangerous veterinary tranquilizer xylazine to the fentanyl to create what is known as ‘tranq.’”

The report further alleges that fentanyl is being hidden in other powder drugs, like cocaine and heroin, and to a lesser extent methamphetamine, resulting in users being unaware that they are ingesting the deadly drug. 

Another major threat is that fake prescription pills containing fentanyl are proliferating, and pose an “extreme danger” the DEA says. 

“Fake prescription pills containing fentanyl present an extreme danger. Most of these fake pills are made to look nearly identical to real prescription pills, such as oxycodone (M30, Percocet); hydrocodone (Vicodin); or alprazolam (Xanax) – the fentanyl content in these fake pills is known only after laboratory analysis,” the report says.

Central to the production of the illicit drugs are China-based chemical suppliers who supply the precursors to Mexican drug cartels to produce the drugs.

According to the report, “China-based chemical suppliers are the main source of the chemicals used in the production of illicit fentanyl.” 

The DEA says that two cartels are responsible for the majority of fentanyl flooding the United States. “

“The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels manufacture fentanyl in clandestine labs they oversee in Mexico, in both powder form and pressed into fake pills, and traffic it into the United States through any of the many entry points they control,” the report reads.


Cartels exploit social media

The report says that the cartels are exploiting social media platforms to flood the U.S. drug market with fentanyl.

“Using both open and encrypted platforms and messaging applications, the cartels advertise drugs for sale, process payments for drugs, recruit and train couriers and dealers, communicate with customers, and plan transactions – all online,” the DEA says.

Encryption is playing a key role in hiding the cartel’s activities and diminishes law enforcement’s visibility into drug trafficking and other crimes committed using the wildly popular platforms. 

“The cartels maintain a web of networks to smuggle drugs into the United States, to include air and sea cargo, vehicular and pedestrian traffic, border tunnels, and stash houses on both sides of the border, and then further direct drug trafficking and distribution inside the United States.”

The DEA says that as deaths rise so does the amount of illicit drugs captured at ports of entry into the United States.

In 2021, 6,875 kilograms of powdered fentanyl was seized at the border, a number that ballooned to 13,176 kilograms in 2023.

In addition, 79 million pills containing the deadly drug was intercepted in 2023 more than triple the 23.6 million pills seized in 2021. 

Despite these massive seizures, the United States continues to be inundated with the drug.

Following an indepth forensic analysis of the pills it was found that most contained between 2.4 and 9 milligrams (mg) of the drug, with a lethal dose of the drug being just 2 mg, depending on the users opiate tolerance.

“The average purity of the fentanyl powder samples was 19.2 percent, a 33 percent increase since 2021,” the DEA says.


The China connection

To produce the drugs, the cartels are relying on the supply of precursors from Chinese suppliers.

The DEA found that Chinese suppliers are deliberately mislabeling shipments to Mexico to avoid detection and that they use “multi-phase shipping maneuvers, and other evasive techniques,” to mask their operations. 

Chinese suppliers are marketing their precursors on dark web marketplaces based in China and use seemingly benign phrases to indicate their willingness to defy bans and restrictions such as, “discreet delivery,” “no customs issues,” and “100% guaranteed delivery of free reshipment.”

The Mexican cartels than use “international export brokers, consignees, third-party countries, and other methods to anonymize the contents and source of the chemical shipments.”

The report alleges that Chinese based chemical suppliers prefer to be paid in cryptocurrency.

In November 2023, Biden met with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping in San Francisco where the two spoke about the fentanyl crisis among other things. 

They spoke about a plan to cut down the flow of fentanyl producing precursors out of China.

Following the meeting Biden said he believed the talks were “some of the most productive and constructive discussions we’ve had,” however there will still be some time before Americans will see if communist authorities actually take action.