Fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid, has become increasingly prevalent and affordable in Utah, state law enforcement officials told lawmakers.

During a Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee meeting on Monday, lawmakers were shown “alarming data” from members of the Utah Department of Public Safety.

In the last few years, the synthetic opioid has increasingly turned up in seizures and fueled overdose deaths, said Tanner Jensen, director of the statewide information and analysis center at the Department of Public Safety. Fentanyl, he said, “is the greatest drug threat in Utah.”

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That influx is likely contributing to a steady decline in black market prices. In 2018, state data suggests one fentanyl pill cost between $25 to $30 — in 2022, Jensen says the price for a single dose was between $5 to $12, an estimated five-year low. Now, the price for a single does is around $2, sometimes less, according to Jensen, who called that “a historically low price.”

“Today we’re seeing it close to a dollar. So the supply is there, to the point where it is extremely cheap,” said Jensen, telling lawmakers “the best indication of how much we’re not catching is based off the price on the street.”

From 2018 to 2021, a total 496,870 doses of fentanyl was seized by Utah law enforcement, most of that in 2021 when officers reported finding 328,183 doses.

In 2022, Utah law enforcement reported 1,485,355 doses seized, more than double what was seized in the four previous years, combined.

Fentanyl started killing Utahns with increased frequency during that same timeframe. In 2018, the drug accounted for 8% of overdose deaths — by 2022, 33% deaths were from fentanyl, surpassing prescription drugs and heroin and second only to methamphetamine as the deadliest drug in the state.

In recent years, meth has been the drug most frequently encountered in Utah by law enforcement. But fentanyl is catching up, and in just the last few weeks, it passed heroin as the drug most seized and submitted to the state lab.

The flow of fentanyl stems from criminal groups and drug cartels in Mexico, said Bill Newell, a drug intelligence officer for the Department of Public Safety. And Utah, because of how it’s positioned in the Mountain West with two major interstates passing through, is a hotbed for drug smuggling.

“They’re very good at what they do,” Newell said of criminal groups in Mexico. “They do it all over the country, all over the world, and Utah is a target for them as any state is, where there’s consumers. It’s like a business, a trucking business or an airline business — they control routes.” 

Officers in Utah used to measure fentanyl seizures by how many pills were recovered. Now, they go by weight because of the sheer volume coming into the state.

“There’s so many (fentanyl pills) coming in, we’d have troopers on the side of the road for two days if we still did that,” said Newell.

Over 70% of the fentanyl samples submitted to labs were counterfeit pills, sometimes meant to imitate less potent opioids, or other drugs, according to state data.

“It’s pre-made pills, generally that light blue color, that are coming across looking like m30s,” said Jensen, referring to m30 oxycodone tablets. “... And the way that they're being made now, just the advanced capability that our criminal adversaries have, they look very legitimate, as if they are legitimate pain pills.”

Jensen described it in simple economic terms. The addiction crisis is fueling demand for fentanyl — it’s also leading to higher tolerances in Utah, with people struggling with addiction now seeking out doses of fentanyl that just a couple years prior would likely be fatal.

“It’s supply and demand. They’re wanting higher levels of fentanyl per pill,” he said, which means the product is becoming more and more potent.