In its pure form, fentanyl is 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. And the drug has become increasingly common in the U.S. as people addicted to opioids – many as a result of painkillers prescribed for legitimate medical reasons – turn to alternative sources.
Fentanyl also is a legitimate painkiller, but it must be carefully administered, and that usually happens via a time-release patch.
But much of the fentanyl sold illegally in the U.S. is in the form of “knockoff” prescription pain pills.
And the source for it is primarily laboratories based in China or western Mexico that manufacture the drug from precursor chemicals obtained in China, India and other Asian countries.
A kilogram of fentanyl in highly diluted form is worth about $3,000 in Mexico and triple that in the southwestern United States. The price soars to $18,000 per kilogram in the Northeast.
Although the drug is fairly simple to make with the right precursor chemicals, the purity of fentanyl produced in Mexican laboratories varies widely.
In 2005, at least one laboratory was producing fentanyl with a purity of 25 percent – that led to a number of overdose deaths among drug users in the United States.
Kilograms of fentanyl seized by law enforcement tend to have a purity level of 7 percent.
Even at that level of purity, the drug has to be cut to about 1 milligram in a 30-milligram pill to give users their “high” without killing them.
Because the purity varies, the price is difficult to calculate. Theoretically, a kilogram of pure fentanyl could produce 1 million pills, each with 1 milligram of fentanyl. If each pill sold for $10, that would translate into $10 million street value.