By Sarah Morland
(Reuters) – U.S. authorities seized 15,000 rainbow-colored fentanyl pills hidden in a Lego toy box destined for distribution in New York City, the city’s largest such seizure to date according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, is among the leading drivers of a nationwide overdose epidemic that has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the United States in the past year.
The DEA on Tuesday said the New York seizure points to wider distribution of the colorful pills, believed to be primarily supplied by Mexico’s two most powerful criminal gangs, the Sinaloa cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
The cartels mass-produce fentanyl pills in rainbow colors to brand them and mimic candy and prescription medication, the agency said.
“Using happy colors to make a deadly drug seem fun and harmless is a new low, even for the Mexican cartels,” New York narcotics city prosecutor Bridget Brennan said in a statement, noting fentanyl accounts for over 80% of deadly overdoses in the city.
“These staggering statistics underscore the importance of reminding the public that just one pill can kill,” said DEA agent Frank Tarentino.
The United States has recently flagged a spike in fentanyl seizures at its border with Mexico. In July, it reported its largest-ever seizure of nearly 1,200 pounds (540 kilograms) of the drug in Sinaloa state. Just two milligrams is considered a fatal dose.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths linked to fentanyl and similar synthetic opioids surged by more than 20% last year to exceed 70,000, more than twice the figure attributed to meth overdoses.
The DEA said around two in five pills analyzed contained a lethal dose. In a recent 15-week operation, the DEA said it had seized the equivalent of half a million lethal doses in New York.