When used correctly by medical professionals it can be a source of huge comfort to patients who suffer from severe pain. When abused or used incorrectly it can kill quickly, shutting down the breathing centers in the brain. The drug is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, and we now know that it was what caused the death of entertainer Prince, who took fentanyl to try and control the chronic pain in his hips.
Fentanyl is easy to overdose on, as it is 40 to 50 times more potent than pure heroin, and 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It was used as an anesthetic in the 1960s, and introduced for more widespread clinical use as a pain reliever in the mid-1990s. It is now thought to be the most common synthetic opioid in clinical practice. Unintentional fentanyl-related deaths numbered more than 700 in late 2013 and 2014.
Fentanyl has become a favorite of Mexican drug cartels due to its potency and popularity. American officials say in it hugely profitable. Mexican cartels are producing the drug in their own labs, as well as receiving shipments from China. They distribute the drug through smuggling networks to meet the rising American demands.
Authorities are seizing increasing amounts of the drug in the U.S. and Canada. In 2014 the reported fentanyl seizures in the U.S. was 4,585, up from 618 in 2012.
In addition to its pain management properties, fentanyl can induce a state of tranquility, relaxation and euphoria, making it popular in the illicit market. It acts in a way that is much the same as heroin, morphine or other opioids, but the risk of death from overdose is drastically increased due to its potency.
Fentanyl’s potency also appeals to drug dealers, since smaller quantities can be sold for high prices. According to data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, a kilogram of heroin can be sold wholesale for $80,000. However, the same amount of pure fentanyl, which can be purchased from China for less than $5,000, can be sold wholesale for $1.6 million.