Where Does Fentanyl Come From?

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Fentanyl continues to remain the subject of many discussions concerning the opioid epidemic in the United States. As overdose rates continue to remain high, much is left to be discovered about this powerfully addictive substance. With such small amounts having such a powerful physical reaction, many unknowingly ingest this potent chemical compound. Many details continue to be discovered about fentanyl including where it comes from and how it continues its path to users worldwide.

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Fentanyl & Synthetic Opioids Derived From the Poppy Plant

Fentanyl is classified (1) as an opioid. Opioids are broken down into three categories.

  • Natural Opioids — Substances like opium and morphine would fall into this category due to the fact that they occur naturally in the seed pods of the poppy plant and are able to be harvested and distilled without the addition of any unnatural or “man made” chemicals. The unripened pods are cut and secrete a milky white substance. Once this substance thickens, it is harvested and dried out. This is opium and is the base for most other opioids.
  • Semi-synthetic Opioids — This is the largest classification of opioids containing substances like heroin and most prescription opioids (Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, etc.). These substances are derived from their naturally occurring counterparts, but are distilled further and mixed with other compounds that are not found in nature.
  • Synthetic Opioids — These are fully synthetic chemical compounds designed with the intended purpose of mimicking the effects of naturally occurring opioids, often with an elevated impact. Fentanyl is classified as a fully synthetic opioid along with substances like methadone and suboxone.

Pharmaceutical Fentanyl Production

Fentanyl is classified as a Schedule II narcotic, meaning that it has a high potential for addiction (2), but does carry medical uses. When used properly as prescribed, fentanyl is a powerful pain reliever for those recovering from surgery or experiencing other chronic pain. It can be given in a shot, in a topical patch, or in a lozenge to be sucked like a cough drop. It is often prescribed for those who have a negative or lack of response to other prescription opioids. The legal streams of fentanyl production are sourced predominantly from laboratories in China.

Where Does Illegally-Produced Fentanyl Come From?

Like many illegal substances with a legal pharmaceutical counterpart, the production is often from the same regions if not the exact same locations. As opportunities for profit continue to rise due to extremely high demand, many parts of the world (3) see an opportunity to improve their quality of life by exporting these illicit substances. Many times, however, criminal organizations with force or coercion recruit someone knowledgeable of the legal manufacturing process in order to produce an illegal counterfeit.


As a leading manufacturer of legal fentanyl used for medical purposes, China is also a leader in the manufacturing and distribution of illegal fentanyl. Often entering the U.S. through international mail, Americans are able to purchase and ship directly to themselves through unregulated drug platforms located on the “dark web.” As technology continues to progress, the means by which it is used for illegal purposes continues to progress as well. With high availability of the chemicals needed to manufacture fentanyl along with the knowledge of the process for legal purposes, it makes sense that this area of the world would be a leader in the illegal production of this substance as well.


As a hub for other legal and illegal opioid production, India has become a leader in illegal fentanyl manufacturing as well. With low production costs and access to the required chemicals, India is able to produce large quantities of these illegal substances at a fraction of the cost that they would be elsewhere. They enter into the U.S. much the same way that illegal fentanyl enters from China, over the “dark web.”


Though Mexico is considered to be an entry point into the U.S. rather than a manufacturing location, many opportunistic criminal organizations have capitalized on the high demand for fentanyl. Mexican cartels have begun to gain the necessary knowledge and chemicals to manufacture this potent substance in Mexico. This manufacturing has exploded due to the close proximity to the United States, the world’s leading consumer of illegal fentanyl.

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How Does Fentanyl Enter the United States?

As fentanyl continues to flood the United States, there are two main paths (3) it can take.

  • The Dark Web — As creative uses for technology increase, so do illegal uses for it. With more unregulated internet platforms than ever before, drug traffickers are utilizing this to their advantage. Much of today’s fentanyl is transported, unknowingly, through perfectly legal means of mail distribution. Drug dealers are able to order fentanyl from many places worldwide and have it shipped directly to their homes completely undetected.
  • Conventional Drug Trafficking — Still a popular tactic used by criminal enterprises, physical smuggling of illegal substances like fentanyl continues to remain popular. Often capitalizing on desperate or poverty stricken individuals, they are able to offer sums of money or the threat of harm to coerce individuals into transporting these substances into their hubs in the United States for further distribution.

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Steps Being Taken to Control the Rise in Fentanyl Use & Accidental Overdoses

As the number one cause (2) of overdose deaths in 2020, fentanyl is the highest concern for drug prevention and law enforcement agencies. Education and information concerning this deadly substance is one of the most valuable tools that these agencies use. As more people become aware of what to look for, how to identify, and how to prevent the introduction of this substance into their communities they become empowered to protect against it. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) initiatives like Project Wave Breaker (4) are responsible for seizing over 2,000 kilograms of fentanyl since its inception in 2021. Each kilogram seized has the potential for causing 500,000 deaths meaning that though these initiatives have just begun in their efficacy, they have a profound impact already.

One of the most helpful tools to fight the high number of overdoses is proper substance use treatment. So many find themselves in the battle for sobriety from opioids like fentanyl. If this is you or a loved one, there is good news. Hope is available. At Guardian Recovery we are positioned on the front lines to provide the highest quality of care to those who may be struggling. With our highly trained staff of medical and addiction clinicians, we are committed to the hopeful future that is possible in a life of recovery. Call Guardian Recovery today to speak with an admissions professional. Your journey to freedom can simply be one phone call away.


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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.

  1. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl
  2. https://www.dea.gov/resources/facts-about-fentanyl
  3. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Fentanyl-Advisory-Manufacturing-Tab-A-508.pdf
  4. https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2021/04/27/dea-launches-project-wave-breaker-stop-flood-deadly-fentanyl-1

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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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