Fentanyl-laced drugs: Cheap, powerful and deadly

Clear capsules filled with white powder sit on a white background.

Jan. 2, 2019—Fentanyl, a particularly potent synthetic opioid drug, has cut a deadly path across the U.S. Now, researchers may know some of the reasons why fentanyl's footprint on the illicit drug market is expanding.

Understanding what's fueling fentanyl's fatal rise could lead to ways to curb it, according to the authors of the report.

Powerful and potentially lethal

Unlike heroin (which is derived from natural poppy opium), fentanyl is made entirely in a lab. It was first produced in Belgium in 1960. It's about 30 to 40 times stronger than heroin. And it often causes users to overdose.

One thing that makes fentanyl so dangerous is that people often don't even know they're taking it. It's rarely sold as "fentanyl." Instead, buyers on the street often think they're getting heroin or drugs like OxyContin. Fentanyl was involved in nearly 29,000 overdose deaths in 2017 alone, say the report's authors.

Researchers talked to people who use fentanyl and fentanyl-laced heroin in order to find out if they can detect fentanyl in the drugs they buy. They concluded that drug users probably aren't driving the demand for fentanyl, since users usually don't know if they're taking it. Even drug dealers often don't know if the drugs they are selling have been laced with fentanyl. Instead, the spread of fentanyl could be due to less heroin and fewer prescription pills circulating in the market, the report suggested. Another factor is cost. Fentanyl is much cheaper to make than heroin.

Fentanyl users also have no way to know just how potent the drugs they buy really are, the report's authors said. Different forms of fentanyl (called analogues) are showing up on the streets. Some of these drugs are as much as 10,000 times stronger than morphine.

The fact that fentanyl is cheap to make and can be made year-round in a lab could help it become an even bigger part of the illegal drug market in years to come, the authors said.

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