Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is used to treat post-surgery pain in hospitalized patients. Prescription fentanyl is used for treating severe pain, although doctors are stirring away from prescribing the drug as it can still lead to opioid dependence. The recent influx of fentanyl and other opioids into the United States has led to a rise in the opioid epidemic, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There has also been an increased amount of illicitly manufactured fentanyl reaching the United States through various forms of drug trafficking. The amount of fentanyl being sold on the streets has led to an increase in overdose deaths in the United States, as well as an increase in opioid dependence.
Illegal fentanyl is largely produced in China, which was previously the dominant source of fentanyl in the United States. Recently, fentanyl has been arriving from the southern border through Mexico, although these are typically drug shipments from China that are simply being rerouted through the bordering country.
According to the DEA, Mexican cartels will “almost certainly have the greatest direct impact” on the U.S. fentanyl market in the coming years. US officials have been attempting to quash the opioid epidemic through diplomatic efforts with other countries, such as providing foreign aid and capturing cartel leaders.
There have also been efforts to end opioid distribution and use once fentanyl has arrived in the United States, such as harm reduction programs which focus on limiting drug overdose deaths and transmission of viruses. There have also been increased efforts to stop distribution by prosecuting groups involved in overprescribing or drug trafficking of fentanyl.
Since the drug can be either pharmaceutical fentanyl or illicitly manufactured, effectively stopping the spread of fentanyl can be a difficult process. This is especially true due to the many forms that fentanyl can be distributed as. Illicit fentanyl is often sold as counterfeit pills that are made to pass as other drugs, such as oxycontin, Percocet, or MDMA.
Fentanyl can also be sold in powdered form, which looks almost identical to cocaine or pure white heroin. Besides being made to look like other street drugs, illegal fentanyl can also be sold in other forms such as blotter paper, eye droppers, and nasal sprays. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is administered as either a shot, a patch put on the patient’s skin, or a lozenge for the patient to suck on like a cough drop.
Whichever form of fentanyl is ingested, even if it was prescribed legally, is still dangerous and can lead to overdose. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. The danger associated with this drug has led to the United States’ government’s intensity in their response.
Since fentanyl is primarily smuggled in from Chinese productions, the government has been working with Beijing to crack down on illicit manufacturing and shipment of ingredients. However, fentanyl has still managed to reach the borders in exponentially increasing amounts, leading to the rise of the opioid epidemic in its current state.