DEA Drug Report came out this march, Fentanyl is still a Plague

DEA Report: Fentanyl a Plague, Meth Down, Marijuana Up, Cocaine’s a Mixed Bag

Every March the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, releases its annual National Drug Threat Assessment. While last year was bad for humanity, the new 2020 assessment shows it was a good year for drugs. 

Like all things 2020, there’s a hitch. Most of the data in the report is backdated to 2019, because it’s the last year for which the DEA has complete data. Even the DEA doesn’t need a team of researchers to read election results though, and when it comes to marijuana: The DEA lost to American citizens of all stripes, once again. 

In 2020, New Jersey, Montana, Arizona, Mississippi and South Dakota all approved marijuana ballot measures. History was made in conservative South Dakota when it became the first state to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana on the same ballot (that still wasn’t good enough for Republican Gov. Kristi Noem and other top GOP lawmakers there who are actively trying to get the will of their voters thrown out in court).   

State-level drug policy is also noticeably different: Washington, DC voted to, essentially, decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms (aka psilocybin), and the entire state of Oregon decriminalized possession of drugs across the board (something Washington state’s top court just ushered in this year). 

Here are the noteworthy takeaways from the DEA’s annual report.

We’ll get to marijuana at the end, because let’s face it, voters in red Mississippi and redder South Dakota are harbingers for the new reality: Cannabis is old news, unless you or a loved one are imprisoned or facing charges for it or if you or yours are sick in one of the few states where it’s still completely illegal. 

Heroin & Fentanyl

  • The DEA is seizing more fentanyl as the deadly substance continues to wreak havoc on the American public, the agency says that 2019 “fentanyl seizures reached the highest recorded levels since at least 2015.”
  • Mexican heroin is the most common in the American markets: 92% of the heroin analyzed by the DEA was traced to Mexico.
  • Seven field divisions, including Chicago and Houston, say that the coronavirus pandemic has decreased the availability of fentanyl.
  • Fentanyl remains most common in heroin, though the presence of fentanyl in cocaine has risen slightly. 
  • Heroin was the second-most common cause of overdose deaths, following fentanyl and prescribed opioids, which are grouped together. Fentanyl overdoses were most common in the Great Lakes regions and the Northeast. 
  • Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl manufactured by Mexican criminal organizations continues to rise: according to the DEA “38 states reported deaths attributed to fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills through January 2020.”
  • While China was once a major trafficker of fentanyl to America, that trade has “decreased substantially.” However, the criminal organizations trafficking fentanyl are primarily getting their raw materials from China. 
  • In Mexico, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel are both ramping up their production of fentanyl. The cartels benefit from the fact that they have existing infrastructure.
  • The amount of heroin seized at the Southwestern border has increased 39% since 2013.
  • Mexican cartels have consistently counterfeited 30 mg oxycodone — or M30s — which is common on the street market — and 71% of the M30s analyzed by the DEA included fentanyl and 26% of those examined contained a potentially lethal dose of the drug. That figure has nearly doubled from previous years. 


  • Most of the methamphetamine seized in the United States comes from Mexico.
  • While most of the chemicals needed to make methamphetamine are labeled in the United States and Mexico, the DEA says that “chemical shipments [from China or India] are mislabeled at the origin, shipped to legitimate companies, and then diverted by [the cartels] and smuggled to the clandestine laboratories.”
  • Seizures of meth labs in the United States have consistently declined from a peak at 2004. 
  • Methamphetamine began appearing in pill form in 2019 and 2020, mostly as counterfeit MDMA but also as counterfeit legal drugs like Adderall.


  • The United States is producing and prescribing less opioids than any year since 2010 — Alabama and Arkansas have the highest opioid prescription rates. Hawaii and New York have the lowest rates.
  • Opioids continue to be a largely American-made problem, and the DEA reports that over half of “prescription pain reliever users obtained their most recently misused [controlled prescription drugs] from a friend or relative for free, in exchange for payment, or via theft.”


  • Cocaine’s appearances in the DEA’s analysis labs are down from a peak in 2006, but it is still prevalent and was the third most common drug analyzed by the DEA after marijuana and methamphetamine.
  • However, cocaine seizures are up; though that is partially due to the massive seizure of 15,582 bricks of cocaine aboard the MSC Gayane, a ship seized in a Philadelphia harbor that was bound for Europe.
  • Deaths from cocaine poisoning have increased every year since 2013 (the DEA’s report uses data from 2018), and New York had the most deaths from the drug. 
  • Cocaine deaths are primarily caused by cocaine laced with a synthetic opioid. That figure has exploded each year since 2017, which was the first year that more Americans died from opioid-laced cocaine than non-opioid laced cocaine. Those numbers have, of course, coincided with the fentanyl epidemic. 
  • Most of the cocaine in the United States comes from Colombia and is trafficked by Mexican criminal organizations. Florida is the most common state for cocaine seizures due to its role in the Caribbean smuggling routes.
  • Almost none of the cocaine found in the United States is shipped directly from the nations of origin; it follows a trade route that includes speedboats mostly running the drugs out of South America through the western side of the continent. 


  • Seizures of marijuana along the Southwestern border are down “more than 81 percent since 2013,” and the DEA says that “Mexican marijuana has largely been supplanted by domestic-produced marijuana.” DEA marijuana seizures in total have been declining since 2015.
  • The DEA’s field offices all said that marijuana was more available than in the previous reporting period — the only exception to that was in Atlanta, where the drug cops say it’s more difficult to procure cannabis. 
  • The DEA says that the 2018 Hemp Farming Act has been used by drug traffickers who “use their state-issued hemp documentation as cover for large-scale marijuana grows and marijuana loads transported across state lines.”
  • Citing data from the University of Mississippi, the DEA says that the THC potency of marijuana is down from 2018. 
  • The DEA says that Mexican marijuana is “typically lesser in quality than marijuana produced in the United States and Canada.”

Alex Thomas is a writer in Washington, D.C. He's been a Washington Political Columnist for Playboy and has frequently discussed his writing on MSNBC. He previously wrote for Death + Taxes before the website was absorbed into SPIN. His full bio, including information on his poetry, is here.

Alex Thomas is a writer in Washington, D.C. He's been a Washington Political Columnist for Playboy and has frequently discussed his writing on MSNBC. He previously wrote for Death + Taxes before the website was absorbed into SPIN. His full bio, including information on his poetry, is here.

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