At a party in Venice in September, four people overdosed on cocaine, believed to have killed three before rescuers arrived. The cocaine they used was said to contain fentanyl.
The deaths were another example of what has happened across the U.S. in the last few years as we have entered what I call the synthetic age of drugs – street drugs made with chemicals; no plants. Various synthetic drugs have been around for decades, but none have come close to the supply and dangers of the two basic products that now come from Mexico: fentanyl and methamphetamine. And with synthetic drugs, as with most other products, both legal and illegal, supply is shaping demand.
I suspect this period will be with us for some time to come because synthetic drugs make a lot of business sense for traffickers. They no longer need land, irrigation, pesticides or farm workers to produce drugs – they can produce them in makeshift laboratories or industrial warehouses. Without the need to plan according to the weather and seasons, these drugs can be made throughout the year if they have enough chemicals. Synthetic drugs are quicker to make, and in the case of fentanyl, they are easier to smuggle because so few are needed for tremendous profits.
Central to the trade equation are shipping ports, which provide access to global chemical markets and the ingredients needed to make synthetic drugs. Combine that with the impunity enjoyed by Mexican traffickers – provided by corruption in this country and the weapons smuggled out of ours – and the result is a powerful drug in the staggering quantities we now see across the US.
This was reported by the Drug Enforcement Administration in September it has already seized 9.5 million counterfeit fentanyl tablets this year – more than in the previous two years combined. About 40% of the tablets seized had lethal amounts of the drug. The Mexican throw is so prevalent that its street price has fallen to its lowest ever – typically between $ 1,500 and $ 3,000 a pound, down from about $ 10,000 and more a pound less than a decade ago.
The relentless offer is the reason why drug traffickers mix a hyperpower drug like fentanyl into everything they sell, even if they risk killing their customers.
Fentanyl has become so common that retailers now use it the way we use salt for food. They sprinkle it profusely on everything they sell: cocaine, methamphetamine, and in some rare cases marijuana. They are motivated by the belief that fentanyl can increase the potency of any drug.
This is especially true for cocaine. Many people across America have been dying from overdoses of cocaine that they did not know was intertwined with fentanyl. This was the main reason for the increase in the number of deaths due to opioid overdose among African Americans especially. Prior to fentanyl, the opioid epidemic affected mainly white people.
Traffickers also understand some basic truths about the drug-dependent brain that have emerged as a result of advances in neuroscience over the past two decades. Our brains contain sophisticated systems that alert us to danger, to the imminent threat of death. Without these systems, we would never have survived as a species.
Drug abuse has been shown to silence these essential systems like nothing else. These parts of our brains are hijacked so that they no longer alert us to imminent death. Instead, these complex neural systems, when on drugs, betray us and work for the benefit of the drug, allowing us to be convinced by the drug that we can only work with it – even though it kills us. Like a parasite that will kill its host.
Traffickers know that for the mind of a drug addict, an overdose is not a warning; it’s an advertisement. An overdose or death is a notification that the trader is selling a particularly potent drug. Therefore, traders have found that it makes business sense to mix fentanyl into other drugs, even if they know the mixture can kill a customer or two.
For traders, adding fentanyl to cocaine or mint is another advantage: it can turn the occasional customer into an everyday opioid-dependent customer who needs a drug to prevent the disease from going away. And given the competition between retailers created by all this offering, when one retailer adds fentanyl to everything it sells, its competitors must follow suit, otherwise they will lose customers.
Many addicts will not buy any drugs no include fentanyl. One medium-sized retailer I met recently gave his wholesaler some fentanyl test strips – designed to detect fentanyl and alert the user to its presence. In this case, she wanted the wholesaler to use them to ensure that everything he bought included fentanyl.
For those addicted to fentanyl, heroin is not strong enough to prevent withdrawal disease, say many people I have spoken to. That is one of the reasons heroin is disappearing from American streets in opium poppy farmers in Mexico are in crisis when traders move from a large plant to a simple synthetic one.
Today, street addicts usually have multiple drugs in their system, often coming from a single source. “What we call heroin probably has everything except heroin,” a user from East Tennessee recently told me.
Today’s quantities of synthetic drugs have ended the period of “recreational drug use.” This concept goes back to the past, when drugs were much more expensive, harder to access, and less powerful, and more forgiving; people could stay alive for decades while still using heroin.
Now every line of cocaine, every “pill” at the party is an invitation to Russian roulette. There is no long-term use of fentanyl on American streets.
Sam Quinones. a former Los Angeles Times reporter, is the author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” and “Least of us: true stories of America and hope in a time of fentanyl and mint“, Which will be published on Tuesday.