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Spike in Pacific Northwest fentanyl overdoses linked to Mexican drug cartel

The DEA says a Mexican-based drug cartel is flooding the Northwest with fentanyl-laced pills.

SEATTLE — The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said transnational criminal organizations, specifically the CJNG cartel, are mixing fentanyl into illicit narcotics, resulting in a significant increase in overdoses.

"For our community, this is a significant threat and something we should take very seriously,” said Frank A. Tarentino, special agent in charge of the DEA Seattle Field division. 

He said there was a 92% increase in fentanyl seizures last year, and trends are going up.

"When you see thousands of pills seized, that’s not uncommon, and we’re seizing that on a daily basis in Seattle,” said Tarentino. 

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Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, used for severe pain, and is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

When illegally-made fentanyl is mixed with heroin or cocaine, it is impossible to tell.

University of Washington research scientist Caleb Banta-Green said the second quarter of 2020 saw 171 fentanyl-involved overdose deaths in Puget Sound, compared with 63 in the same quarter a year earlier, and 18 in the second quarter of 2017. 

The reasons behind the spike are still unclear. What is clear is that the pandemic is likely playing a role.

“I think we can say that people have more time on their hands. They have some possible depression and/or social anxiety,” said Tarentino. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 83,000 people lost their lives to drug-related overdoses in the 12-month period ending in July 2020, a significant increase from 2019, when more than 70,000 people died of overdoses.

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