The Rise of Fentanyl as an Illegal Drug

Photo of prescription drugs by Moco360/Creative Commons

By Isabelle Verduzco


UNITED STATES — The United States is in another drug crisis – the worst yet. 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, even 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be a lethal dose. This amount is equal to a few grains of salt. 


Historically, the first wave of opioid overdose deaths occurred in the 1990s. The second wave came in 2010 with most opioid deaths traced to heroin. In 2013, countless deaths were found to involve synthetic opioids, especially those with illegally manufactured fentanyl. The numbers have continued to rise sharply since 2019. 


Fentanyl was initially used in the mid 20th century as an intravenous anesthetic. It was approved by the FDA for this and analgesic (pain relief) purposes. Fentanyl has been used in everything from lozenges to transdermal patches. The majority of deaths, however, come from the illegal creation and use of fentanyl. 


The reason why fentanyl is responsible for so many deaths is because it is being mixed with other illicit drugs to increase their potency. It is sold in nasal sprays, powders, but increasingly as pills masquerading as legal prescription opioids. Some people take the pills unknowingly consuming fentanyl. Others take it knowing what it contains, but without knowledge on whether or not it has a fatal dosage. 


Why did the rise of illegal fentanyl usage begin? According to the U.S, China is the main source of the chemicals used to make fentanyl artificially, but it also exports counterfeit prescription drugs containing fentanyl such as oxycodone. This is because China does not have many regulations on its pharmaceutical industry. The precursor chemicals, after being made in China, are then sold to Mexican drug cartels to be made into synthetic opioids sold to the United States. Its low cost and potency makes it rewarding for these creators and sellers. 


Mexico has made it clear it has no desire to reduce the trade. Mexico has also denied its role in the production and sale of illegal fentanyl altogether, with the President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declaring, “Here, we do not produce fentanyl, and we do not have consumption of fentanyl. Why don’t they (the United States) take care of their problem of social decay?” There is overwhelming evidence however, that goes against his claim. 


China has shown little to no cooperation on the issue and, like Mexico, denied its role. Their Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mao Ning stated, “The root cause of overdose lies in the U.S. itself, and the problem is completely made in the U.S. The U.S. should face up to its own problems, and take more substantive measures to strengthen domestic supervision and reduce demand.” 


The misuse of fentanyl has worsened to the point where it is now the number one killer of Americans under 50, surmounting everything from cancer to suicide. According to the administrator of the U.S. DEA (United States Drug Enforcement Administrator) Anne Milgram, “Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered.”

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