Feb. 18, 2021 – Fentanyl isn’t a new substance, having first been synthesized in a lab in 1960 by the Belgian company Janssen Pharmaceuticals. The drug has important medical uses, including for COVID-19 patients in critical condition. Some also theorize that fentanyl reached illicit North American markets long before the modern overdose crisis.

In the 1990s, a powerful substance known as ”China White,” sold as heroin, came onto the scene, and was linked with thousands of overdoses. Some modern researchers and harm reduction advocates suggest that this substance may have contained fentanyl, or one of its analogs. However, Pardo noted, fentanyl only became a household name with the rise of global e-commerce and the Chinese pharmaceutical market (a connection that racist politicians have exploited). And its impact is well documented. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for the 12 months leading up to May 2020, 81,000 reported drug overdose deaths occurred in the US. This was a marked increase from the previous 12-month reporting period, and, the CDC notes, synthetic opioids appear to be the primary driver.  Per the Iron Law, fentanyl’s very high potency—which the DEA reports as between 80 and 100 times that of morphine—means it is active in much smaller quantities than heroin, and smaller quantities can be hidden and smuggled more easily.  Above all, the cost is perhaps 1 percent of what it costs to produce heroin, Pardo estimated.  It is also relatively easy to produce. There is no need, as with heroin or other plant-derived opiates, to wait for poppy crops to mature. Instead, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids can be made in small labs with fewer people than would be needed to grow and process crops, maximizing profits by cutting the cost of labor.



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