The Epidemic of Fentanyl in the United States

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Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid whose use has ballooned to epidemic proportions over the past several years, overtaking heroin, other opioids, and stimulants as one of the most dangerous substances available today.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl was developed for pain management treatment of cancer patients, but drug traffickers, seeing its powerful opioid properties and low cost of manufacture, began marketing it to recreational users.

While overdose deaths from heroin and prescription opioids have declined, deaths attributed to synthetic opioids continue to rise.

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What Has Caused the Rise in Fentanyl in the U.S.?

Several factors have contributed to the fentanyl epidemic in the U.S. These elements have combined to create a “perfect storm” that impacts millions of people, disrupting lives, tearing apart families, and cutting short the lives of many.

Fentanyl is More Potent than Heroin

When looking at the strength of fentanyl vs. heroin, the synthetic opioid is up to 50 times more potent and 100 times stronger than morphine. Its potency makes it a prime supplement for dealers looking to cut the cost of heroin production and enhance the high by adding small amounts of fentanyl to their blend.

Synthetic Opioids are Cheap

A dose of synthetic opioids costs far less than their natural cousin, heroin. While fentanyl was once primarily used to supplement the high of heroin, many markets in the U.S. and Canada are now seeing it replace heroin entirely.

Fentanyl is Becoming Easier to Market

Sellers have taken advantage of the extended reach, relative anonymity, and proliferation of information on the internet to manufacture and distribute fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

More accessible and efficient methods of combining drugs are just a few keystrokes away for those who want to manufacture synthetic opioids. Online shopping has expanded distribution networks that were once limited by geography. Anyone with access to the Web sand a mailing address is now a potential customer for even the least tech-savvy dealer.

Where is Illicit Fentanyl Coming From?

U.S. officials state that China remains the primary source of raw materials sold to Mexican drug cartels who manufacture synthetic opioids and traffic them to the United States.

The cartels press the product into pills that look like Xanax, Adderall, or oxycodone. These counterfeit drugs are sold to unsuspecting buyers who assume they are purchasing street versions of prescription drugs or heroin and often overdose.

While Mexico and China are the primary source countries for fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances, India has recently become a player in the market, producing finished fentanyl powder and other chemicals used to manufacture the substance.

How is Fentanyl Entering & Spreading Throughout the Country?

While much has been made of securing the Mexico/U.S. border with a wall or fencing, the effort has no effect on the trafficking of fentanyl from Mexico. Drug traffickers hide their products in plain sight in private cars and commercial vehicles to smuggle them over the border at legal ports of entry. People are also walking products over the border.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the amount of fentanyl seized by the agency skyrocketed from 2020 to 2022. In the fiscal year ending September 2022, CBP seized a record 14,700 pounds of fentanyl, compared with 11,200 pounds in 2021 and 4,800 pounds in 2020.

Still, the agency only inspects 1 to 6% of the cars that flow through border crossings, leading one to wonder just how much fentanyl and other illicit drugs make it into the U.S.

Overdose & Death Statistics

Fentanyl’s potency places users  — intentional or otherwise — at high for overdose. Just two milligrams of the synthetic opioid — equivalent to 10–15 grains of table salt — can prove lethal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 100,000 people died from drug overdose in 2021, and illicit fentanyl was responsible for more than 60% of them. That same year, there were almost 123,000 fentanyl-related emergency department visits. Those numbers reveal a significant increase over the past several years.

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Is Fentanyl Causing Higher Addiction Rates?

Fentanyl is highly addictive because of its potency. Even those taking prescription fentanyl under a physician’s care can develop dependency if they are not vigilant.

In the arena of illicit use, price, availability, and the use of fentanyl as an additive to other substances make it highly likely that you will come into contact with it if you continue to use drugs. The side effects of withdrawal also make it possible that you will continue to seek out fentanyl if you don’t enroll in a medically assisted detoxification program designed to monitor and minimize your symptoms.

These symptoms include:

  • Muscle and bone pain.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Chills.
  • Uncontrollable leg movements.
  • Severe cravings.

What Is the Cost of Fentanyl & Opioid Addiction to the U.S.?

According to the CDC,  opioid overdose death, and opioid use disorder cost the United States $1.02 trillion in 2017. This price tag covers spending on health care, opioid use disorder treatment, criminal justice, lost work productivity, and estimates of the cost of lost quality of life and deaths.

But the actual cost is probably much higher. How can you put a dollar and cents value on the toll substance use disorder takes on family, friends, your relationships with them, and your self-esteem?

Fentanyl Detection Methods to Prevent Exposure

The safest way to avoid the dangers of fentanyl is to know when you are potentially exposed to it. Fentanyl test strips (FTS) can help. This inexpensive drug testing technology was initially developed for urinalysis but has proven to be effective in detecting the presence of fentanyl and fentanyl equivalents in drug samples before ingestion.

FTS are small, easy-to-use strips of paper that can alert for the presence of fentanyl in cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and other substances. Depending on the substance, the test takes two to five minutes.

The Risks to Recreational Drug Users

Recreational drug use has always been dangerous, but the fentanyl epidemic has exponentially increased the odds of overdose and death. With so many synthetic opioids flooding the illicit drug market in so many forms, users can’t make informed decisions about using the drug.

The wisest and safest choice is to seek help for substance use from an accredited facility like Guardian Recovery. In the meantime, you can take steps to increase safety if you or a loved one use illicit drugs or are dependent upon prescription opioids.

  • Always have naloxone available, whether out or at home. Naloxone quickly reverses an overdose by blocking the effects of opioids.
  • Do not mix drugs. Combining multiple stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine, depressants like opioids and alcohol, or both can cause harm and/or death.
  • Never use drugs alone. Make sure those around you know if and what you have taken so they can monitor you for overdose and get you the proper care.
  • Don’t assume your source will provide a “safe” product.
  • Ask for help if you are ready to get treatment for your addiction.

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Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid flooding the illicit drug market in many forms. Manufacturers and traffickers sell the drug disguised as prescription Xanax and Adderall or use it to enhance the potency of other drugs causing many users to take it unknowingly. The result is an epidemic of overdoses and deaths that outpace heroin, methamphetamine, and many other illicit drugs. If you know or suspect you have a dependency on fentanyl, the experienced and compassionate medical, clinical, and administrative staff at Guardian Recovery are ready to help. We provide comprehensive treatment, including medically-assisted detox, therapy, specialty programs, and reintegration support. We will guide you through every step of your recovery from your first call and throughout your recovery. We provide a complimentary assessment and a free insurance benefits check and help coordinate local travel to our facility. All you have to do is ask for help; we will take care of the rest. Contact us today.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


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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