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Legal drug 50 times stronger than heroin behind an 'unprecedented' overdose deaths in the US

The number of drugs found by law enforcement containing opioid fentanyl see a 426 per cent jump

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 August, 2016, 3:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 August, 2016, 11:30am

Fentanyl, the drug that killed Prince, is an opioid painkiller that's 50 times stronger than pure heroin.

Although the deadly drug is legal with a doctor's prescription, it's also being made illegally in underground labs and traded across the US.

A new CDC report found that from 2013 to 2014:

•Incidents of law-enforcement officers finding drugs containing fentanyl jumped 426 per cent.
•Deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl rose by 79 per cent.

"In contrast to the 2005–2007 fentanyl overdose outbreak, when deaths were confined to several states, the current epidemic is unprecedented in scope," the report states.

Here's what you need to know about it:

This is fentanyl. It looks like any other prescription painkiller — but it isn't.

Fentanyl, which is also available in a patch or liquid, is 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and about 40 to 50 times more potent than 100 per cent pure heroin. 

Source: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

Still, the drug belongs to a larger class of drugs, known as opioid painkillers, that includes prescription drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin. These drugs work by capitalizing on our body's natural pain-relief system and can result in a surging sense of euphoria.

Since 1999, overdose deaths in the US involving opioid painkillers have quadrupled. In 2014 alone, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving the drugs. From 2013 to 2014, synthetic-opioid deaths increased by 79 per cent.

Source: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

But fentanyl is the most potent of these painkillers — and it's available on the street. The photo below shows a bag of fentanyl pills disguised as hydrocodone tablets and recovered by authorities during a fentanyl investigation in Northern California:

Aside from being available with a prescription, fentanyl is making its way to America and Canada by way of China and Mexico, where it's either produced illegally in underground labs or mixed into heroin produced by traffickers.

Sources: Fusion, The Globe and Mail

In Mexico, the version of the drug mixed into heroin is called "El Diablito," or the little devil. “There’s almost nobody making pure heroin anymore, because el diablito is so much stronger,” one trafficker told Fusion.

Source: Fusion

That trafficker said he got the precursor chemicals from China and paid a Colombian chemist US$50,000 to show him how to make fentanyl.

Source: Fusion

The drugmakers change up the specific ingredients in the drugs so fast — and produce them in such massive quantities — that drug enforcement can't keep up.

Source: STAT News

While the number of reported law-enforcement captures of drugs containing fentanyl spiked, the number of doctors' prescriptions for the drug stayed about the same, according to the August 25 report. This suggests that illegal trafficking of fentanyl — not prescriptions — is what's behind the rise.

The drugs are made illegally in powdered form in giant underground laboratories like this one, where the drug K2 or spice is being manufactured.

Source: Vice

Here's a small bag of the drug in powder form being poured onto a piece of paper.

Source: Fusion

Then it's packed up and smuggled into the US.

But it's not just the drugs themselves that are being snuck into the US. In Southern California, authorities recently seized packages sent to mail centers and labeled as office supplies. One box contained a quarter-ton pill press, which can be used to hide the drug in pills resembling other painkillers. It was labeled “Hole Puncher."

Source: STAT News

The problem may be the worst we've seen in decades. "In contrast to the 2005–2007 fentanyl overdose outbreak, when deaths were confined to several states, the current epidemic is unprecedented in scope," the CDC report states.

These connections are making it possible for American drug dealers to produce large quantities of the drug in pills that can resemble prescription painkillers like hydrocodone.

But fentanyl is deadly, especially when obtained on the street, where there's no way to know exactly what's in it. As an opioid painkiller, the drug slows down breathing and the functions of the central nervous system. “It is so potent and so deadly that even a microgram amount can kill someone,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told The Guardian.

Source: The Guardian

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