Local cops seized enough fentanyl last year to kill almost all of West Fargo
Fargo-Moorhead has been caught up in a nationwide flood of fentanyl, a powerful opioid drug that's killing people across the U.S.
FARGO — Law enforcement officers in the Fargo area seized roughly 38,000 fentanyl pills in 2022, enough to kill almost every West Fargo resident, according to Fargo Police Chief Dave Zibolski.
It's a drastic jump from the 1,120 fentanyl pills Fargo police confiscated in 2021. The escalation has mimicked a growing trend in the U.S. that has law enforcement and health leaders concerned.
“It is still a very prevalent and growing pernicious problem,” Zibolski said of the influx of illegal fentanyl. “And to be honest with you, I don't think enough people are talking about it.”
Fentanyl, a powerful opioid painkiller, is often laced into counterfeit oxycodone pills with the markings M30 on the blue round tablets. Law enforcement also has warned the public of bright, multicolored pills being produced to target children. The “rainbow fentanyl” has been found in Fargo, police said.
The Fargo Police Department joined the Cass County Drug Task Force in February 2022, so the department’s fentanyl seizures are combined with other law enforcement in Cass County. Zibolski said the combined numbers shouldn’t be that far off from what Fargo had in total.
Concerns over fentanyl reignited in 2020 as drug overdoses almost tripled to 93 cases reported to the Fargo Police Department. More than 20% of those overdoses were fatal.
Fargo drug overdoses spiked to 148 in 2021, with 35 being fatal, according to Fargo police numbers. Preliminary numbers for 2022 show the department responded to 106 overdoses last year, including 23 deaths.
Fatal overdoses may be down, but the problem of more fentanyl coming into the area is still concerning, Zibolski said. Not all overdoses in the city are reported to the Fargo Police Department, he said.
The city has lost 101 people to drug overdoses over the last five years, the chief noted. If those were homicides, there would be public outcry, he said.
“This problem is continuing and it’s growing exponentially,” he said.
Fargo wasn’t the only city that saw a large jump in fentanyl seizures. The Moorhead Police Department said it confiscated 9,011 M30 pills last year, more than 20 times the 422 pills seized in 2021.
“It’s a nationwide problem,” Moorhead Police Chief Shannon Monroe said. “It’s hitting everywhere.”
Last year, Moorhead police responded to 36 drug overdoses, six of which were fatal. The department said 72% of the overdoses, including two fatal ones, likely involved fentanyl.
Last year’s overdose numbers are down from the 63 reported in 2021, including eight deaths. Moorhead police suspect fentanyl was used in 59% of those overdoses, including four deaths.
The situation in the Fargo-Moorhead area follows a growing trend seen across the country.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized more than 379 million doses of potentially fatal fentanyl in 2022 — enough to kill every American, the DEA said.
The number of pills confiscated in 2022 was double the amount the DEA seized in 2021, the agency said.
DEA agents used to find just a handful of pills a few years ago for each arrest involving fentanyl, said Emily Murray, a DEA spokeswoman for the Omaha division. These days, agents may find thousands of pills at a time, she said.
The Jalisco New Generation and Sinaloa cartels are two major pushers when it comes to fentanyl, Murray said. The drug often comes from China to Mexico before reaching the U.S.
“They just have this product in mass quantities,” she said. “They’re pushing out these pills in alarmingly high numbers.”
The DEA has discovered the cartels have direct ties to people dealing in North Dakota communities, Murray said.
Asked why cartels make a product that can kill their customers, Murray said it is about making a profit off of those who will return for the drugs.
“It’s all about making money,” she said. “There is no concern for life.”
Fargo and Moorhead are at the intersection of two interstates, making the flow of drugs into the area easier, Moorhead Police Capt. Deric Swenson said.
Metro-area officers on both sides of the Red River have worked together to prevent pills from making their way further into North Dakota, Monroe said.
Drug agents across the country have formed partnerships with local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement to pull fentanyl pills and powder off the streets while working toward arresting trafficking leaders, Murray said.
Jordan Beyer, a harm reduction specialist for Fargo Cass Public Health, said many in the community have worked hard in an effort to curb opioid use and raise awareness about its dangers. That includes public distribution of naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses, and test strips that indicate the presence of fentanyl in drugs .
The Harm Reduction Center in Fargo said it handed out 5,654 doses of Narcan, a type of naloxone, to people last year and 6,335 doses in 2021, Fargo Cass Public Health Prevention Coordinator Robyn Litke Sall said.
People who used the naloxone doses reported they reversed 461 overdoses in 2022, slightly up from 459 in 2021.
The center also handed out 1,144 fentanyl test strips between July and December, Litke Sall said.
Beyer noted that police are doing a great job at getting some of the drugs off the streets.
"I do worry about the younger folks who are using recreationally and might not be as aware to what is really going on with the product they are buying," he said.
Destigmatizing substance use disorders also is key. "Persons with substance use disorders often don’t seek help due to stigma," Litke Sall said.
For more information on the Harm Reduction Center and its programs for helping people with substance use, call 701-298-6982 or go to fargond.gov/city-government/departments/fargo-cass-public-health/harm-reduction-programs.