Fentanyl History

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Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid much more potent than other opioids like morphine and heroin. It is typically used as a pain medication, especially for people experiencing severe pain, such as cancer. It can also be used as an anesthetic during surgery or other medical procedures.

Fentanyl works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, which then blocks pain signals and produces a feeling of euphoria. However, because it is so potent, it carries a high risk of overdose and can be addictive, primarily if misused.

Today, fentanyl is also used illicitly as a recreational drug, often mixed with heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine to increase its potency. This has led to a rise in overdose deaths, particularly in the United States.

Fentanyl can be taken in various forms, including pills, patches, and injections. It is important to note that fentanyl should only be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional and never taken recreationally or in larger doses than prescribed. Misusing fentanyl can be incredibly dangerous and even deadly.

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What Is the History of Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid used as a pain medication and anesthetic. It was first synthesized in 1959 by Belgian chemist Paul Janssen and introduced into medical practice in the 1960s.

Initially, fentanyl was used primarily in hospitals for surgical anesthesia and pain relief. However, as its potency and effectiveness became more widely known, it began to be used more frequently for other types of pain management, such as chronic pain.

In the 1990s, a transdermal patch form of fentanyl was developed, allowing continuous, long-term pain relief. This became a popular form of pain management for cancer patients and others suffering from chronic pain.

Governments and law enforcement agencies have been working to address the fentanyl crisis through education, prevention, and enforcement efforts. However, the problem remains a significant challenge, and the history of fentanyl highlights the dangers of powerful synthetic drugs and the importance of responsible use and regulation.

When Was Fentanyl First Created?

Fentanyl was developed in 1959 and introduced in the 1960s as an intravenous anesthetic. While legally manufactured and distributed in the United States, licit fentanyl pharmaceutical products are sometimes diverted via theft, fraudulent prescriptions, and illicit distribution by patients, physicians, and pharmacists.

However, from 2011 to 2018, fatal overdoses of illegally produced fentanyl increased dramatically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fentanyl analogs were involved in approximately 2,600 drug overdose deaths each year in 2011 and 2012. But from 2012 through 2018, overdose deaths involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids increased dramatically yearly. There were 70,601 overdose deaths of fentanyl in 2021.

More recently, there has been a resurgence of trafficking, distribution, and abuse of illicitly produced fentanyl accompanied by a significant increase in overdose deaths.

Where Did Fentanyl First Come From?

Fentanyl was created in Belgium by the Belgian chemist and physician Dr. Paul Janssen in 1959. At the time, Dr. Janssen worked for the pharmaceutical company Janssen Pharmaceutica, based in Beerse, Belgium. Today, Janssen Pharmaceutica is a subsidiary of the American multinational corporation Johnson & Johnson.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, meaning it is made in a laboratory rather than being derived from the opium poppy plant like other opioids. It was created by synthesizing various compounds until Dr. Janssen found one with the desired pain-relieving effects.

Since its creation, fentanyl has been used primarily as a prescription medication for pain relief and anesthesia in medical settings. However, in recent years, it has also become a popular drug of abuse due to its potency, and it is often illegally manufactured and sold on the streets. This has increased overdose deaths and other public health concerns related to fentanyl use.

What Is the Historical Purpose & Use of Fentanyl?

Dr. Paul Janssen, the founder of Janssen Pharmaceutica, developed and synthesized fentanyl in 1959, holding the patent for the potent analgesic. Its effectiveness as a pain reliever and anesthetic led to quick adoption in the medical field, with the brand Sublimaze used as an intravenous drug in the 1960s. Subsequently, analogs of fentanyl-like Sufentanil, Alfentanil, Lofentanil, and Remifentanil were developed.

In the mid-1990s, the Duragesic patch was introduced, enabling transdermal delivery of fentanyl to patients with chronic pain, such as cancer patients. The patch, made of alcohol gel with pre-determined fentanyl doses, slowly releases the drug into the bloodstream via body fats over two or three days. Duragesic underwent clinical trials and was widely used in clinical practice.

Other devices for fentanyl delivery, such as Fentora buccal tablets and Actiq lollipops, were also developed, providing fast-acting relief to long-term pain sufferers. An effervescent tablet and buccal spray were also introduced, but transdermal skin patches remained the most commonly used fentanyl delivery method.

Nonetheless, the widespread misuse of fentanyl has emerged as a significant public health issue. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and its analogs have been implicated in many drug overdose fatalities. As a result, fentanyl usage is tightly regulated, and patients must be carefully monitored to ensure the drug is being used properly and not abused.

When Was Fentanyl First Used Medically?

Fentanyl was first used medically in the 1960s when it was introduced as an intravenous anesthetic called Sublimaze.  Dr. Paul Janssen, the founder of Janssen Pharmaceutica, developed and synthesized fentanyl in 1959, and the drug quickly gained popularity due to its potent analgesic properties. Since then, fentanyl has been widely used for anesthesia and pain management in the medical field.

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The Current Role of Pharmaceutical Fentanyl in Health Care

Pharmaceutical fentanyl continues to play a significant role in healthcare today. As a powerful opioid analgesic, it is primarily used for pain management, particularly in severe or chronic pain cases. Fentanyl is available in various formulations, including transdermal patches, lozenges, buccal sprays, injectable solutions, and nasal sprays.

Fentanyl patches are commonly used for chronic pain management, particularly in cancer patients. The patches are applied to the skin slowly, releasing the medication over 72 hours. Fentanyl lozenges and buccal sprays are used to treat breakthrough pain, which occurs suddenly and is not relieved by the patient’s regular pain medication. These formulations provide rapid relief of pain when needed.

Injectable fentanyl is used in surgical settings as an anesthetic and for pain management during and after surgery. It is also used in emergency medicine to treat severe pain and as a sedative in critical care settings.

Despite its effectiveness in managing pain, fentanyl is a potent drug with a high risk of addiction and overdose. Therefore, it is generally prescribed only for patients with severe or chronic pain who have not responded to other treatments. Close monitoring is required when using fentanyl, and patients must be educated on the medication’s potential risks and side effects.

When Did Illicit Fentanyl Production & Distribution Become a Crisis?

Illicit fentanyl production and distribution became a crisis in the United States in the early 2010s. The increase in deaths related to fentanyl began to be noticed around 2013, and by 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is often mixed with other drugs like heroin, cocaine, or counterfeit prescription pills without the user’s knowledge. The potency and availability of fentanyl have sharply increased overdose deaths in the United States and other countries.

Illicit fentanyl is often produced in clandestine laboratories in China and Mexico and smuggled into the United States through various channels. The crisis has led to increased efforts by law enforcement and public health officials to curb the supply of illicit fentanyl and improve access to addiction treatment services for those struggling with opioid addiction.

Fentanyl’s Role in Opioid Addiction

Fentanyl’s role in the opioid addiction crisis is significant. Because of its high potency, fentanyl use can quickly lead to addiction and severe withdrawal symptoms. Fentanyl is also responsible for many overdose deaths in the United States and other countries.

Fentanyl became part of the opioid crisis in the United States in the early 2010s due to a combination of factors.

Firstly, there was a significant increase in prescription opioid use in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Secondly, there was a shift in the illicit drug market, with the supply of heroin becoming more limited due to crackdowns on production and trafficking.

Finally, illicit fentanyl began to be produced in China and Mexico and smuggled into the United States through various channels, including mail and international drug trafficking networks.

The convergence of these factors has led to a significant increase in overdose deaths related to fentanyl, which is now considered a vital driver of the opioid addiction crisis.

Historical Overdoses From Fentanyl Use

Fentanyl use has been linked to a significant increase in overdose deaths in recent years, particularly in the United States.

Historically, fentanyl was approved for medical use in the United States in the 1960s and was initially used primarily for pain management in cancer patients. However, in the 1990s, fentanyl began to be used more widely for treating chronic pain, including non-cancer pain.

As the use of fentanyl for chronic pain management increased, so did reports of overdose deaths. In 2006, for example, there was a cluster of fentanyl overdose deaths in the United States that were linked to illegally manufactured fentanyl that had been mixed with other drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Since then, fentanyl-related overdose deaths have increased, particularly as illicit fentanyl has become more readily available. Illicit fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs without the user’s knowledge, which increases the risk of overdose and death.

What Countries Are the Greatest Distributors of Fentanyl?

The greatest distributors of illicit fentanyl are believed to be China and Mexico.

China is known to be a major source of the precursor chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Illicit manufacturers in China often use these precursor chemicals to produce fentanyl and its analogs, smuggling them into other countries, including the United States.

Conversely, Mexico is a significant transit point for fentanyl and other illicit drugs destined for the United States. Mexican drug trafficking organizations are known to be involved in the production, distribution, and smuggling of fentanyl and other drugs.

Efforts to address the illicit fentanyl supply require a coordinated international response, including cooperation between law enforcement agencies and regulatory authorities in multiple countries.

The Largest Fentanyl Bust in History

The largest fentanyl bust in history was in 2019, when authorities seized a record-breaking 254 pounds of fentanyl powder in a clandestine laboratory in Mexico.

Other large fentanyl seizures have also been reported in recent years, including a seizure of 33 pounds (15 kilograms) of fentanyl in Nebraska in 2017 and a seizure of 70 pounds (31.8 kilograms) of fentanyl in Ohio in 2019. However, the 2019 seizure in Mexico remains the largest on record.

US Customs and Border Protection officers at El Paso ports of entry have intercepted large amounts of drugs since the start of 2023. The seized drugs include 327.78 pounds of methamphetamine, 139.81 pounds of cocaine, and 42.70 pounds of fentanyl.

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At Guardian Recovery, we remain dedicated to providing our clients with a comprehensive program of fentanyl detox — one that focuses on much more than physical stabilization. In addition to emphasizing physical recovery, we tackle mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. While prioritizing a safe and pain-free drug withdrawal, we offer individualgroup, and family therapy sessions, case management services, relapse prevention training, and aftercare planning.

Contact us today if you or your loved one is ready to begin an entirely new way of life and commit to long-term recovery. As soon as you call, we start developing a plan of action that begins with an initial pre-assessment. This assessment helps us determine the most appropriate level of care for each unique case. We identify potential coverage options if our medically monitored detox program is a good fit. We work closely with most major regional and national insurance providers. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation insurance benefit check.

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  14. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/featured-topics/overdose-prevention-campaigns.html
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  17. https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/local-media-release/cbp-officers-seize-largest-amount-fentanyl-cbp-history
  18. https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/local-media-release/cbp-officers-seize-more-500-pounds-hard-drugs-start-2023

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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