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Fentanyl: The Most Dangerous Illegal Drug in America

Fentanyl is not a new drug. It's been used for decades as a painkiller and anesthetic. Surgeons learned to watch their patients closely after administering fentanyl because of the way it stiffens the muscles that control breathing. It was hard to make and hard to find on the streets—until it wasn't.

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Today, fentanyl is a mail-order product, marketed on the open internet and shipped directly to consumers and dealers, no international drug cartels required. Some of it comes across the border from Mexico, but much of it comes from poorly regulated labs in China. They often guarantee delivery, so sure are they that their small packages will slip by in cargo shipments or standard mail.

RAND researchers found several Chinese firms willing to ship a kilogram of nearly pure fentanyl to the United States for as little as $2,000. A shipment of heroin with the same potency would cost at least 50 times that much.

Drug dealers didn't need much imagination to see that they could cut a bag of heroin with cheap fentanyl and pocket the difference. But fentanyl is not just cheaper than heroin; it's also up to 30 times more powerful, and some of its chemical cousins are even more potent. A dosing error equivalent to a few grains of salt will kill a person. Users wouldn't even know what was hitting them until it was too late.


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