The drug fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. It was created in a laboratory in 1960 to treat cancer patients and comes as a patch applied on the skin.
On the black market, dealers may add fentanyl to heroin to boost its potency. Overdoses can result when users believe they are dosing with heroin instead of the supercharged synthetic.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), trafficking fentanyl illegally is extraordinarily profitable: one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the potent narcotic can be purchased in China for $3,000 to $5,000 and then sold illegally in the U.S. for over $1.5 million.
The DEA says that it only takes one dose of 2 milligrams of fentanyl to cause death in most people. One pound contains 453,592 milligrams.
Taking fentanyl produces an intense euphoric high that lasts a short while with slowed respiration and lowered blood pressure. Side effects can include nausea, fainting, seizures, and death.
Most illegal fentanyl in the U.S. is made in Mexico and smuggled over the southern border. Some fentanyl purchased on the dark web makes it into the country from China in legal shipments sent through the U.S. Postal Service and international express mail carriers. A smaller amount enters the United States through Canada from Asian organized crime groups.
Opioid addiction in American is at epidemic proportions. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):
“Drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury death in the United States.”
A report titled “The Future of Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opioids” was published August 29, 2019, by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank, and revealed that total deaths from synthetic opioid use in the U.S. skyrocketed from about 3,000 in 2013 to more than 30,000 in 2018. Once introduced to a new market, the drug spreads fast and quickly becomes popular among addicts.
Thomas Overacker, the executive director of the Office of Field Operations at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, announced that the Chinese fentanyl mail-order trade “dropped precipitously” in 2019 with only several pounds intercepted at national mail facilities and airports.
Contrast that amount of confiscated fentanyl to the more than 2,000 pounds of fentanyl appropriated by Customs and Border Patrol agents in the southern U.S. This amount of the synthetic opioid could kill everyone in the country. What Mexican fentanyl lacks in purity compared to its Chinese counterpart, it makes up for in volume smuggled into the U.S.
Matthew Donahue, the regional director for U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operations in North and Central America, indicated that Mexican cartels “have an increasingly important role in fentanyl trafficking.”
As of July 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has seized and is storing enough fentanyl to kill approximately 794 million people. As of Friday, September 27, the national population stood at just under 330 million. This means CBP has stockpiled enough of the deadly opioid to kill every man, woman, and child living here with plenty left over.
A report released in July by the Inspector General (IG) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that “the amount of fentanyl seized by agents and stored in vaults has skyrocketed – from 70 pounds in 2015 to 3,500 pounds so far in this budget year.”
The CBP stores seized fentanyl as criminal evidence in 62 vaults located around the country. It can take years for pending federal prosecutors to try a drug-related case involving confiscated fentanyl and the hardcore painkiller is piling up.
Official inspectors discovered that some CBP agents who handle the stored fentanyl don’t have access to naloxone (branded as Narcan), the drug that reverses the effects of an overdose. In some instances, the naloxone was stored inside locked boxes and agents couldn’t remember the key code.
The IG report pointed out the health threat facing federal border patrol employees:
“With the recent rise in fentanyl seizures, CBP staff now routinely handle fentanyl more than ever. However, without easy access to naloxone in case of exposure, CBP is unnecessarily jeopardizing the lives, health, and safety of its staff.”
CBP agreed with the IG’s findings and pledged that all its vaults storing fentanyl will have Narcan kits with agent training on how to use them by the end of September.
In 2016, the DEA stated:
“Just touching fentanyl or accidentally inhaling the substance during enforcement activity or field testing the substance can result in absorption through the skin and that is one of the biggest dangers with fentanyl. The onset of adverse health effects, such as disorientation, coughing, sedation, respiratory distress or cardiac arrest is very rapid and profound, usually occurring within minutes of exposure.”
Canine (K-9) unit dogs are at high risk from fentanyl poisoning by inhalation. The powerful painkiller is best handled in an area with good ventilation by personnel wearing gloves at a minimum.