All around North America, some drug dealers are lacing heroin with an illicit version of the potent anesthesia drug fentanyl. The dangerous combination is quickly killing unsuspecting users and worsening the nation’s epidemic of deaths from heroin overdose, NPR reports. The Drug Enforcement Administration says fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Regional drug dealers add the illicit form of fentanyl to the heroin they sell in hopes of restoring the potency of a product that’s been diluted by dealers higher up the distribution chain.
Pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl is useful during surgery as an anesthesia drug. In the past two years, say federal drug agents, Mexican cartels have ramped up production of a variant called acetyl fentanyl in clandestine labs. They are smuggling this version into the United States. “Heroin is bad enough, but when you lace it with fentanyl, it’s like dropping a nuclear bomb on the situation,” says Mary Lou Leary of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “It’s so, so much more dangerous.” There were at least 700 fentanyl-related deaths nationwide in a period from late 2013 through 2014, say federal officials. Many states and Canadian provinces are reporting a sudden increase in overdose deaths.