By 2014 America was in the middle of an opioid crisis. Thousands of people were dying each year from powerful prescription painkillers and heroin. Then deaths started to skyrocket.
Something was being mixed into heroin: a powder 50 times more powerful than the heroin itself that can kill a user almost instantly.
It was fentanyl, an opioid drug like heroin. But very few heroin users were familiar with the potency of fentanyl, and the mix of both drugs started killing people at an alarming rate.
Fentanyl isn’t just a street drug. It was created in 1959 to treat severe pain — particularly for cancer patients — and for use as an anesthesia. Doctors say it works well and comes in a few forms: a liquid for an IV, a skin patch or a lozenge.
The fentanyl being cut into heroin is different. It’s a powder, typically made in underground labs in China and smuggled into the United States, often by mail.
But it’s not just showing up in heroin. Fentanyl is also being mixed into cocaine and pressed into counterfeit pills. Some officials say users are even seeking drugs laced with fentanyl.
It’s now a scourge in urban, suburban and rural areas. Few places are unscathed, but the problem is most acute in the Northeast, Appalachia and the Midwest.
Authorities are fighting back, distributing drugs that reverse overdoses and increasing penalties for fentanyl traffickers. But fentanyl shows no sign of slowing down.