Law enforcement to legislature: Fentanyl in Utah getting cheaper, deadlier and easier to find

By: Kyle Dunphey, Utah News Dispatch

In Utah, fentanyl is now the most seized narcotic, responsible for at least 50% of fatal overdoses and at a cost of only about $2 or $3 per pill.

That’s according to Utah Department of Public Safety officials, who on Wednesday briefed lawmakers on a number of crime-related issues including the threat of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has fueled overdose deaths around the country.

For years, methamphetamine was the most commonly seized drug in Utah — that changed with the rise of opioids, and heroin eclipsing all drugs in 2022. Now, in the last year, fentanyl is by far the drug most frequently tested by the state drug lab, said Bill Newell, coordinator for the Utah Crime Gun Intelligence Center, which is under the Utah Department of Public Safety.

“Meth had been king for years, king in terms of the amount being submitted to the lab for testing. Well, now fentanyl is solidly in first place. And that’s a problem,” Newell told lawmakers during a Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee meeting.

The prevalence of fentanyl in Utah has drastically driven down prices, said Tanner Jensen, director of the Department of Public Safety’s Statewide Information and Analysis Center. In 2018, data from the department suggested the average price of a single “M-30” fentanyl pill — a counterfeit pill designed to imitate oxycodone — was around $25 to $30.

By 2020, the cost of a single dose dropped below $20; in 2021, one pill was around $10; in 2022, the department says the pills were between $3 to $5. Last year, the street price hovered around $2, Jensen said on Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of product out there that they’re trying to push, so that’s why the price is down. It’s a good indication that there’s a lot of this type of drug on the street,” Jensen said.

As of Wednesday, the State Bureau of Investigations’ narcotics task force, which is one of 20 narcotics task forces around Utah, had seized as many fentanyl pills in 2024 as they did in all of 2023, Jensen said.

Not only are they seizing a higher volume, but the fentanyl that officers are finding is increasingly potent. State data shows that in 2020, 4 in 10 fentanyl pills contained a lethal dosage, which is about 2 milligrams for a healthy adult with zero tolerance for opioids.

Now, Newell said 7 in 10 pills tested by the state lab contain a lethal dose, with that number likely to rise.

In Utah, stronger fentanyl is likely leading to more overdose deaths. Though the data is still preliminary, the Department of Public Safety said fentanyl was involved in 50% of all fatal overdoses in 2023. That’s a troubling trend for the state, considering just 8% of overdose deaths in 2018 were fentanyl related, increasing to 33% in 2022.

Both Newell and Jensen pointed to criminal groups based in Mexico, which have pivoted in recent years from trafficking heroin, cocaine and marijuana, to fentanyl.

“Mother Nature plays no part, and it’s just a matter of getting the precursor chemicals and producing it,” Newell said.

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