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Opioid Drugs

How Fentanyl Has Taken Over the Illegal Drug Industry

— January 24, 2022

With these stories and statistics in mind, it begs an obvious question: how much fentanyl is lethal? Unfortunately, the answer is we don’t know.

In early January, a $1 million drug bust operation took place in Austin, Texas, involving at least 12 people and 100,000 counterfeit pills. What were these pills laced with? Fentanyl. Unfortunately, this is not unique to Austin. It’s just one example of the growing danger and dominance of fentanyl at the center of the illegal drug industry. Here’s what you need to know about the danger of the drug’s reach and risk in 2022. 

Exploding Onto the Drug Scene

In less than a decade, drug overdose deaths in the United States have more than doubled. For the first time in the nation’s history, those rates have exceeded 100,000 fatalities. That number represents a wide range of drugs, but many people see fentanyl at the center of it all. But recent studies paint a picture of fentanyl even grimmer than the world of drug death rates. 

In fact, one recent article makes the shocking statement that fentanyl is the leading cause of death of Americans ages 18-45! The death rate statistics show that fentanyl is responsible for more deaths in that demographic than the deaths attributed to car accidents, suicide, Covid-19, or cancer in 2021.

If that many people are dying from fentanyl, what does it say about the number of people that are taking it on a regular basis? The WHO estimates that around 62 million people worldwide use opioids, with the vast majority using illicit forms of opioids containing fentanyl. This means that while we cannot know exactly how widespread fentanyl is, opioid use is a helpful indicator in general.

Drug Potency and Profit Potential

So why the explosion of fentanyl use, and more importantly, fentanyl overdose? What is this drug, and what makes it such a desirable drug game of Russian roulette?

Unlike opiate drugs made from the opium poppy plant, fentanyl is a synthetic drug. Despite the dangers already mentioned, fentanyl does have limited legitimate use. Its original design is for use in extreme pain management or end-of-life treatment. Since this is the only official use for fentanyl in medical treatment, its health effects on users are unknown and understudied. Fentanyl’s dedicated use in extreme cases also explains why it comes with very high potency. By comparison, it is 50-100 times more potent than other opioids, such as morphine and heroin. 

This explains why fentanyl is dangerous enough in responsible hands– and deadly in the wrong hands. Unfortunately, fentanyl spends a lot of time in the wrong hands- especially unsuspecting hands. The fentanyl drug bust in Austin was the seizing of 100,000 pills meant to look like oxycodone. In other words, potential buyers of these pills were planning to buy oxycodone, not fentanyl. This same pattern of fentanyl trickery is seen in other counterfeit drugs, including supposed high-quality cocaine, heroin, and hydrocodone.

Philly Officials Issue Warning About Fentanyl-laced Pressed Pills
Photo by James Yrema on Unsplash

The profit potential is pretty straightforward for these sellers. Purchasing illegally sourced fentanyl from Chinese manufactures on the dark web or drug cartel operations in Mexico is cost-effective compared to the cost and dangers of smuggling in the real thing. Instead, fentanyl plays the starring role in drug-cutting. Dealers can cut their drugs with fentanyl and sell them as high-quality or premium versions without the buyer’s knowledge of what the drug really is. 

This explains the popularity of fentanyl, as well as the reason for the ongoing rise in overdose deaths. With no way for users to accurately regulate their dosage amount (or even know the ingredients) of these illicit drugs, stories continue to emerge of individuals who are dying from taking what they assume to be pain pills. Fentanyl is as unforgiving as it is potent. It’s easy to understand why some describe it as a game of Russian roulette.

Knowing is Less Than Half the Battle

With these stories and statistics in mind, it begs an obvious question: how much fentanyl is lethal? Unfortunately, the answer is we don’t know. It is true that those extreme cases of prescription fentanyl come with an official dosage amount, but that goes out the window when it comes to street fentanyl. The reason one dose of fentanyl can be lethal is that there is no way to verify how much of it is present. Because there is no way to regulate the contents of illicit drugs, it should be assumed that what you buy contains trace amounts of fentanyl, which are lethal amounts. 

A better option than playing Russian roulette with fentanyl is to take the reliable path– abstaining from all illicit drug use altogether. But if you or someone you know has possibly consumed fentanyl, there are some traceable short and long-term effects, including things like decreased appetite, slurred speech, or decreased blood pressure for the short term. Long-term effects can include changes in the brain, organ damage, or severe respiratory issues.

While the effects mentioned above are good warning signs, they should not replace the life-saving use of emergency treatment. One example includes the use of Naloxone, the standard medication to treat opioid overdose. Because of this, it is important to seek medical attention immediately for yourself or others with a known or potential use of fentanyl. Fentanyl may be taking over the illegal drug industry, but it’s also killing users at an alarming rate. The only way to prevent the dangers of this drug is to avoid it altogether.  


CBS Austin. (2022, January, 4). Cedar Park PD Arrests 12 People in Fentanyl Bust After Joint Operation With DEA. Retrieved

Wall Street Journal. (2021, November, 17). Drug Overdose Deaths, Fueled by Fentanyl, Hit Record High in U.S. Retrieved

ABC Denver (2022, January 4). Fentanyl is the Leading Cause of Death in Americans Ages 18-45. Retrieved

World Health Organization (2021, August). Opioid Overdose. Retrieved

US News. (2021, December 21). Fentanyl: a Game of ‘Russian Roulette’ for New Mexicans. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). What Is in Fentanyl, and How Is It Made?. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.).The Most Potent (Strongest) Opioids Currently Available. Retrieved

NIH. (2021, June). What is Fentanyl? Retrieved

Wall Street Journal. (2016, October, 5). The Pill Makers Next Door: How America’s Opioid Crisis is Spreading. Retrieved

DOJ (2021, July, 12). Ringleader of Extensive Sinaloa Cartel-Linked Fentanyl and Heroin Trafficking Network Sentenced. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Understanding Drug Cutting – What Is It and Why Does it Happen? Retrieved

Wall Street Journal. (2021, December, 16). Fentanyl Invades More Illicit Pills, With Deadly Consequences. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). What Amount of Fentanyl Causes an Overdose? (Plus Treatment Help) Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). What Are the Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Fentanyl Use? Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Narcan: The Overdose Reversal Drug | Side Effects & Prescriptions. Retrieved

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