DEA: Record number of fentanyl pills seized in Minnesota in 2023

DEA: Record number of fentanyl pills seized in Minnesota in 2023

DEA: Record number of fentanyl pills seized in Minnesota in 2023

Samantha Koerner – known as ‘Sam’ to her friends- is on a journey of recovery.

“I lived a very destructive life,” she declares. “I didn’t care if I lived or died.”

Koerner, 29, from South Minneapolis, has been drug-free for three years now.

She says she fought a nine-year battle with addition to fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamine.

“I’m literally someone who walked out of being dead and came back to life,” Koerner explains. “We’re in the car and then I woke up to people throwing water on me and like being smacked in the chest.”

After a near-fatal fentanyl overdose in 2020, she was revived by multiple doses of naloxone.   

Koerner says years later, she’s well aware fentanyl pills are circulating in her neighborhood.

“It’s like people are the walking dead out here, so fentanyl is very prevalent,” she notes. “We have a job to do, a mission to accomplish, and a lot of people need help.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration announced Wednesday that investigators seized a record 417,000 fentanyl pills in Minnesota in 2023, more than twice the number of any other state in the region.

The agency says pill seizures across the state have more than doubled, a 127% increase in 2023.

“It’s like an avalanche,” says Rafael Mattei, the Assistant Special Agent-In-Charge with DEA Minnesota. “They’re seeing our efforts and they’re trying to counteract with just sending more.”

Mattei says drug distributors, supplied by Mexican cartels, are trying almost anything- like mailing fentanyl-stuffed teddy bears to addresses in the metro.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Justice Department announced the arrest of six people, accused in a conspiracy to mail fentanyl pills from Phoenix to Minnesota.

Authorities say they seized six packages containing sixty-six pounds of illegal pills.

“It’s a cash crop, right?” Mattei says. “It’s so profitable that these cartels are just going to flood and keep flooding to make as money as they can. When you look at population size, the Twin Cities, and the surrounding area, that’s why we have the bigger numbers.”  

At Minnesota Prevention and Recovery Alliance- a recovery community organization in Minneapolis- staffers say about 60% of their participants have used fentanyl as their primary or secondary drug of choice.

“It’s actually an additive,” explains Recovery Services Manager Amanda Nordstrom. “Sometimes our participants don’t even know that they’re using fentanyl and it’s added into different illicit drugs- and it’s really scary.”

The Alliance, founded in 2021, helps people battling drug addiction to get treatment resources, peer support, and community outreach services.

Nordstrom says participants in the program tell her it’s easy to find fentanyl on the streets.

“Absolutely, they can literally go down the streets in Minneapolis and get it within ten minutes,” Nordstrom says. “I’m glad for law enforcement that they’re taking an active role in seeing this issue, it also tells me there’s still a lot of work to do. And the demand is high if they’re having an influx of thousands of pills.”

Preliminary data from the Health Department shows the number of opioid overdose deaths appears to be leveling off- just over 1,000 people in 2022.

MDH says most involved fentanyl.

The DEA says seven out of ten pills they’ve seized contain a potentially deadly dose of the drug.

Experts say that means a measure of uncertainly- but also note a potential turnaround.  

“People don’t know what’s in their drug supply anymore, and then of course, fentanyl is a very potent drug,” explains Mary DeLaquil, an MDH Epidemiologist. “I feel for the first time that fentanyl came on the scene … that maybe we are seeing a slowdown, a stabilization, and that hopefully will be a first step towards a decline.”

DeLaquil says the drop in fatal overdoses could be a result of a combination of factors: wider availability of naloxone, police seizures that are getting pills off the street, and access to treatment.  

Koerner, now a Community Recovery Advocate with Minnesota Prevention and Recovery Alliance, says she has hope and wants to make a difference.

“It’s been a blessing coming from that side, and being able to give back,” she says. “I feel like there’s a lot of people out there in a state of hopelessness. It’s like, how do we move them and convince them that they’re worth it, and there’s a life that’s probably better than what they’re living. We have to reach these people.”