Fentanyl: DEA Sounds Nationwide Alarm on Drug's Dangers

Caroline Cassels


March 18, 2015

The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has issued a nationwide alert about the dangers of the narcotic fentanyl and fentanyl analogues/compounds.

According to the DEA, the drug, which is often used in anesthesia to prevent pain after surgery or other procedures, is commonly laced in heroin, causing significant problems across the country, particularly because heroin abuse has increased.

"Drug incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States and represent a significant threat to public health and safety," DEA administrator Michele M. Leonhart said in a statement.

"Often laced in heroin, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues produced in illicit, clandestine labs are up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin," she added.

The DEA reports that in the last 2 years, the DEA has seen a significant resurgence in fentanyl-related seizures. According to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System, state and local laboratories reported 3344 fentanyl submissions in 2014, up from 942 in 2013. In addition, the DEA has identified 15 other fentanyl-related compounds.

A Schedule II narcotic used fentanyl is the most potent opioid available for use in medical treatment ― 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is potentially lethal, even at very low levels. The DEA notes that ingestion of even small doses ― as small as 0.25 mg ― can be fatal. Its euphoric effects are indistinguishable from those of morphine or heroin.

The DEA has also issued warnings to law enforcement agencies, owing to the fact that fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin, and accidental inhalation of airborne powder can occur. The DEA is concerned about law enforcement personnel coming in contact with fentanyl on the streets during the course of enforcement, such as during a buy-walk or buy-bust operation.

"Fentanyl is extremely dangerous to law enforcement and anyone else who may come into contact with it. DEA will continue to address this threat by directly attacking the drug trafficking networks producing and importing these deadly drugs. We have lost too many Americans to drug overdoses, and we strongly encourage parents, caregivers, teachers, local law enforcement, and mentors to firmly and passionately educate others about the dangers of drug abuse and to seek immediate help and treatment for those addicted to drugs," said Leonhart.

The DEA reports that in 2014, law enforcement operations involving fentanyl in the United States were significant, particularly in the northeast and in California, which included one 12-kg seizure. The fentanyl from these seizures originated from Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

The DEA also reports that globally, fentanyl abuse has increased during the past 2 years in Russia, the Ukraine, Sweden, and Denmark. Mexican authorities have seized fentanyl laboratories there, and intelligence has indicated that the precursor chemicals came from companies in Mexico, Germany, Japan, and China.

This is not the first time fentanyl has posed such a threat to public health and safety. Between 2005 and 2007, more than 1000 US deaths were attributed to fentanyl ― many of which occurred in Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The source of that fentanyl was traced to a single laboratory in Mexico. When that laboratory was identified and dismantled, the surge ended.

The DEA cites some recent examples of the fentanyl surge across the United States, including the following:

  • The New Hampshire State Laboratory recently reported four fentanyl overdose deaths within a 2-month period.

  • New Jersey saw a huge spike in fentanyl deaths in 2014, reporting as many as 80 in the first 6 months of the fiscal year.

  • Rhode Island and Pennsylvania have also seen huge increases since 2013. In a 15-month period, about 200 deaths were reported in Pennsylvania that were related to fentanyl.

  • In the St. Louis area, based on information provided by medical examiners during a 10-year period, fentanyl was the only drug attributed as being a primary death factor in 44% of overdose cases.

  • In June 2014, the DEA in New York dismantled a heroin and fentanyl network and arrested the two heads of the organization. These individuals were linked to at least three overdose deaths from the heroin and fentanyl they sold.

More information on fentanyl is available here.


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