Drug Dealers Are Mixing Fentanyl with Heroin In Potentially Deadly Combo

By May Wilkerson 08/28/15

Drug labs are now illegally making fentanyl from scratch.

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Fentanyl, a powerful painkiller often prescribed to patients who’ve had major surgery, has made its way onto the streets where it is increasingly used to cut heroin, and the combination can be deadly, NPR reports.

The painkiller is popular among doctors because it acts fast. It’s also extremely potent: the drug is about 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Abuse of fentanyl actually began about 25 to 30 years ago among hospital workers, anesthesiologists and nurses, long before people were mixing it with heroin, says Dr. Neil Capretto, an addiction physician at the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pa.

"There were a rash of [health specialists] dying from overdose,” he said. “You'd hear of them getting it in the operating rooms by drawing out fentanyl from vials and putting saline in its place."

Patients began abusing the drug once it was released in the form of a take-home patch, which some people would eat or steep like tea. "And because fentanyl is so powerful, we started seeing more drug overdoses and death,” he said.

In the past decade, there has been a steep rise in drug dealers mixing fentanyl with heroin to create a more intense high. Combining the two drugs reportedly creates a feeling of euphoria, in addition to drowsiness, nausea, and confusion. Fentanyl’s extremely quick potency makes this combo especially dangerous, since people may not realize how much they’re taking.

Also, the painkiller can restrict a user’s breathing. "The more narcotic you take, the less your body has an urge to breathe,” said Dr. J.P. Abenstein, president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. “And it makes sense that a lot of people are overdosing on it because they aren't sure how much to take."

The DEA reported that more than 1,000 people died from fentanyl-heroin overdoses between 2005 and 2007. Seizures of drugs containing the painkiller more than tripled from 942 to 3,334 between 2013 and 2014 and in March, the DEA deemed fentanyl a "threat to public health and safety."

Illegal drug labs are now making fentanyl from scratch, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The DEA has reportedly raided several labs in Mexico that were making the drug using chemicals imported from China and Japan. Capretto believes there are now U.S.-based labs making fentanyl as well.

"Drug dealers are in the business of making money and I've heard it's very easy to make, so that means they can save money [by doing it themselves]," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if there were real Walter Whites out there. Chemists and pharmacologists can turn to the dark side, just like in Breaking Bad."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.