Fentanyl use in Utah is on the rise once again, with the state poison control center reporting a fivefold increase in nonprescription fentanyl cases during the last year.

Methamphetamine had been the No. 1-seized illicit drug submitted for testing to the lab run by the Utah Department of Public Safety until just recently, when fentanyl testing pulled into a tie with meth.

“That is reflective around the country. Fentanyl is one of the top one or two for drugs submitted to crime labs for testing,” said William Newell, with the Utah Drug Initiative and the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Newell, who spent 32 years with the Drug Enforcement Agency, said the situation is dire.

Newell said the state Office of the Medical Examiner reported that in 2000, fentanyl was detected in 1% of mixed toxicity overdose deaths. The number jumped to 8% in 2018 and by 2022, it was involved in 34% of overdose deaths.

His presentation was recently made to members of the Utah Emergency Management Administration Council at the state Capitol. Newell detailed the escalating problem of fentanyl in Utah, particularly its powder form that can be mixed with other drugs such as heroin, meth — and even marijuana.

“Assume it is in everything,” he warned.

Fentanyl, in pill form, powder and even disguised as candy, makes its way up the I-15 corridor in Utah, smuggled into the state via Mexican cartels, he said.

Just two milligrams constitutes a lethal dose — the equivalent of 3.125 % of a penny’s circumference, or not even enough to cover the tip of a pencil.

“So, one of the things that we do is we look at trends,” Newell said. “... And I look at it from what is our most precious resource and that’s our people. So we are very concerned about what we see on the drug horizon.”

“The cartels are now producing about a million pills a day. Five years ago this was scaring us crazy,” and the problem has only grown worse, he emphasized.

Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Jimmy Banks shows a bag of heroin used in K-9 detection training in a warehouse at the Freeport Center in Clearfield on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. Small pieces of Whatman paper are stored in the same jar as the drug, absorbing the drug’s scent, and then hidden throughout the warehouse for K-9s to find. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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The drug monitoring initiative is made up of a variety of essential partners.

“We’ve worked with community coalitions across the state that represents a lot of individuals around the community (who are) drug users. And that information is important to us too,” Newell said. “They will tell you that they’re more scared now than they’ve ever been about what’s on the drug market. It’s a toxic, toxic environment because of it.”

Even users are afraid.

Newell said fentanyl pills are increasingly lethal, not easily discerned when masquerading as another drug and their going purchase rate on the street has dropped precipitously.

According to the DEA’s national lab, 4 of 10 fentanyl pills tested lethal in 2021, in 2022 6 of 10 pills tested lethal and by this year 7 of 10 fentanyl pills are lethal.

In 2018, one fentanyl pill went for between $25 and $30 in Utah. This year they are as cheap as $1 to $3.

There is also a new blend out there on the streets known as “Tranq,” when xylazine, a large animal tranquilizer, is mixed with fentanyl to prolong its effects.

“Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, according to Newell’s PowerPoint presentation.

“DEA has seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 states,” she said. “The DEA laboratory system is reporting that in 2022, 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine.”

The United States and China are on the cusp of a deal to crack down on companies that make the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, which is then mass produced in South America and Mexico. The deal is expected to be finalized and announced in coordination with President Joe Biden’s summit meeting in San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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Utah Highway Patrol trooper Jason Jensen and K-9 Maverick do detection training in a warehouse at the Freeport Center in Clearfield on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News