Fentanyl is an opioid used in medicine as part of a surgical anesthetic and as a pain medication. When used illicitly or recreationally, it is often in the form of a pill (mislabeled as an actual medication such as oxycontin), a liquid, or a white or brown powder. Fentanyl and its analogues (i.e. chemically similar mimics) are significantly more potent than heroin or morphine. Just three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal, compared to 30 milligrams of heroin.
Fentanyl has been found in multiple kinds of illicit drugs, including heroin, other opioids, methamphetamine and cocaine. Often, those selling, buying or using these drugs are unaware of the presence of fentanyl. Drugs containing fentanyl or its analogues, sometimes even in small quantities, substantially increase the danger of overdose and death.
According to a report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, the number of drug overdose deaths from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, more than doubled between 2016 and 2017 in the United States. Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids have increased by 135 percent in New York State in just one year.
Image above shows the dose of lethal fentanyl as compared to a penny. Image courtesy of the New York State Police Crime Laboratory.