Clandestine Labs in the U.S.? Illicit Fentanyl No Longer Just a Transnational Trafficking Problem

Illicit fentanyl is no longer just a trafficking problem. Now it’s a domestic problem, with clandestine labs busted for manufacturing the synthetic opioid right here on U.S. soil.

Police raid

In many ways, the fentanyl epidemic has closely followed the timeline of the meth crisis. Meth started mostly as a drug of choice that was trafficked into the U.S. from Mexico. But today, meth is made in clandestine drug labs across the United States. Now, drug makers and dealers are following a similar pattern with fentanyl. For years, fentanyl was trafficked across countries and continents to the United States. But today, law enforcement officials are increasingly seizing fentanyl batches manufactured on U.S. soil.1

Fentanyl Pill Seizures on the Rise

Fentanyl seizures

Law enforcement seizures of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl have increased exponentially in recent years. Clandestine drug labs make counterfeit pills that look like name-brand prescription opioid pain relievers. But really, such drugs are dangerous cocktails of many chemicals, often fentanyl included.

Between January 2018 and December 2021, the number of individual pills seized by law enrollment in the U.S. increased nearly 50-fold. Further, the proportion of pills to total seizures more than doubled, meaning law enforcement officers are performing huge busts and seizing thousands upon thousands of pills at a time.2

For the raw data, in the first quarter of 2018, there were 68 drug busts in the U.S. where the drugs seized tested positive for fentanyl. In the last quarter of 2021, the DEA performed 635 such busts.

In the first quarter of 2018, 42,202 individual fentanyl pills were seized; in the last quarter of 2021, 2,089,186 such pills were seized. Meanwhile, seizures of powder fentanyl also spiked, from 424 seizures in Q1 2018 to 1,539 seizures in Q4 2021, and from 298.2 kg seized in Q1 2018 to 2,416 kg seized in Q4 2021.

It is no mystery that an exponential increase in fentanyl bodes ill for the American people. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is extremely concerned about this. Its director, Dr. Nora Volkow, spoke on the issue. “An increase in illicit pills containing fentanyl points to a new and increasingly dangerous period in the United States. Pills are often taken or snorted by people who are more naïve to drug use and who have lower tolerances. When a pill is contaminated with fentanyl, as is now often the case, poisoning can easily occur.” Ensuring fentanyl does not get into the hands of unwary users has to remain a priority for law enforcement.

But Where are These Counterfeit Pills Coming From? A Quick Look at Several Recent Cases

Police activity, yellow tape
Photo by AlanDavisPhoto/

The seizure data alone is enough to stop one in their tracks. But just as concerning is where the drugs are coming from. Increasingly, DEA agents are busting fentanyl-producing drug labs in the U.S. Previously, DEA agents were seizing fentanyl batches that traffickers made elsewhere.

In recent news, a southern California man was arrested on suspicion of running two illegal drug labs, each of which used high-speed pill presses to manufacture bulk amounts of fentanyl-laced tablets. It is suspected the man was selling the fentanyl on the dark web.3

“This massive seizure disrupted the flow of dangerous amounts of fentanyl into our streets and probably saved many lives. A staggering number of teens and young adults are unaware that they are ingesting fentanyl in these fake pills and are being poisoned.”

In another recent news story, the DEA Los Angeles field office made a historic seizure of about 1 million fentanyl pills. It was the largest fentanyl seizure ever conducted in California. DEA Special Agent in Charge Bill Bodner commented on the unprecedented drug bust. “This massive seizure disrupted the flow of dangerous amounts of fentanyl into our streets and probably saved many lives. A staggering number of teens and young adults are unaware that they are ingesting fentanyl in these fake pills and are being poisoned.” At this time, it is unknown exactly where all 1 million pills came from, but some believe a portion of the seized pills were manufactured in the U.S., with the rest traced to transnational drug cartels.4

In yet another recent story, the United States Department of Justice released an official public safety surge order to the DEA, instructing all DEA offices to increase efforts to seize illicit fentanyl and to bust as many U.S.-based labs as possible in the process.5

It’s worth mentioning that the DEA is only just beginning to locate and bust U.S.-based clandestine fentanyl labs. With a great deal of effort and no small amount of hope, law enforcement agencies may be able to stop fentanyl producers from achieving a foothold here in the U.S.

What Does it Mean for American Families When Drugs are Manufactured Here?

While law enforcement efforts are to be applauded, no effort to tackle a drug problem from a purely supply-side approach will be 100% effective. Americans must also focus on demand. The fact that illicit fentanyl could be being made anywhere in America is yet another incentive for American families to get help for their addicted loved ones. The presence of local drugmakers and local distributors means addicts now have more access options and more ways to get a hold of their drug of choice.

Fentanyl is already a highly potent opioid that causes more deaths than all other opioids combined. If millions of addicts across the nation have easier access to the drug due to local production, deaths will soar even higher if those addicts don’t get help.

The recent reports also indicate a need for state and federal leaders to shift their approach towards one that addresses the demand for fentanyl. Leaders, public health officials, and policymakers must push for treatment for addicts rather than focusing solely on the border and solely on cutting down on transnational drug trafficking. Illicit drug production is here, in the United States, and here it will stay until Americans who struggle with addiction are helped.


  1. DEA. “Fentanyl Flow to the United States.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2020. ↩︎

  2. NIDA. “Law enforcement seizures of pills containing fentanyl increased dramatically between 2018-2021.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2022. ↩︎

  3. USNews. “Prosecutors: Man Ran 2 Drug Labs That Made Fentanyl Pills.” U.S. News, 2022. ↩︎

  4. DEA. “DEA Los Angeles Field Division Makes Historic Seizure of Approximately 1 Million Fentanyl Pills.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2022. ↩︎

  5. DOJ. “Department of Justice Announces DEA Seizures of Historic Amounts of Deadly Fentanyl-Laced Fake Pills in Public Safety Surge to Protect U.S. Communities.” Department of Justice, 2021. ↩︎