Fentanyl, the drug that killed Prince, has become a favorite of Mexican cartels because it is extremely potent, popular in the U.S. and immensely profitable, the New York Times reports. Law enforcement and border authorities say Mexican cartels are using their own labs to produce the drug as well as receiving shipments from China. The cartels distribute the substance through their vast smuggling networks to meet rising American demand for opiates and pharmaceuticals. “It is really the next migration of the cartels in terms of making profit,” said Jack Riley of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “This goes to the heart of the marketing genius of the cartels. They saw this coming.”
It is unclear how Prince obtained the drug. Doctors can prescribe fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, for cancer patients and for palliative care, including end of life treatment. The presence of illicit fentanyl is rising to levels not seen since 2006, when a similar streak of overdose deaths in the U.S. was connected to a single laboratory in Mexico. A kilogram of heroin purchased from Colombia for roughly $6,000 can be sold wholesale for $80,000, DEA says. A kilogram of pure fentanyl, purchased from China for less than $5,000, is so potent that it can be stretched into 16 to 24 kilograms when using cutting agents like talcum powder or caffeine. Each kilogram can then be sold wholesale for $80,000, for a total profit of $1.6 million.