RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Classified as a narcotic, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug introduced in the 1960s and approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a pain reliever and anesthetic. Originally developed to treat pain in cancer patients, fentanyl is an extremely addictive drug with powerful pain-masking properties. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl is around 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin.

Since the last decade, there has been a rapid rise in fentanyl abuse, with approximately 2,600 cases of overdose deaths in 2011 and 2012. According to the DEA, the number of deaths involving the use of illicitly produced fentanyl and fentanyl analogues continued to climb dramatically after 2012, with overdose fatalities reaching 31,335 in 2018. Among those who overdosed on fentanyl in 2018 was 26-year-old famed rapper Mac Miller, who got the pills laced with the drug about two days before his death on Sept. 7, 2018.

More recently, the DEA reported that more people died of fentanyl-related overdoses in 2021 than gun- and auto-related deaths combined. Mass overdoses connected to fentanyl use has continued into 2022. In March alone, 30 individuals across Florida, Texas and Colorado have overdosed on the drug, according to a recent DEA memo.

In Virginia, there has also been an uptick in fentanyl trafficking, distribution and abuse. The recent rise in opioid overdoses in Central Virginia has led the Richmond City jail to provide its inmates with training on how to reduce the risk of overdose after they leave, including how to test for the presence of fentanyl. Earlier this month, a man in Greene County was arrested for allegedly having 11,000 fentanyl tablets with the intention to distribute them. Barely a week later, three people were arrested in the same county for possession of illegal substances, including fentanyl, and conspiring to distribute the drugs. In early May, officials in Alexandria, Va., issued a warning to the public about a recent spike in drug overdoses linked to fake Percocet tablets containing fentanyl.

In late April, a Virginia teen was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison for ordering hundreds of fentanyl-laced pills through Snapchat from a California supplier. Three men in Northern Virginia were also sentenced to prison for conspiring to traffick fentanyl-laced pills earlier that month. In March, Henrico County police busted a ‘fortified drug house’ and the homeowner was charged with 17 felonies and six misdemeanors, including possession of and intent to distribute fentanyl, among other drugs. Around the same time that news came out, another Virginia man pleaded guilty to distributing more than 56 grams of fentanyl in Petersburg.

Below, quick facts from the Drug Enforcement Administration about fentanyl — including what it looks like, common street names and its dangerous effects.

What is fentanyl?

A: Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug developed as a pain reliever and anesthetic for cancer patients. It is around 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin.

What does it look like?

A: Illegally produced fentanyl come in a powdered form or as fake tablets. It is sold alone or in combination with other substances such as heroin or cocaine. Pharmaceutical fentanyl come in the following forms: tablets, lozenges (known as fentanyl “lollipops”), nasal sprays, transdermal patches and injectables.

How do people abuse fentanyl?

A: Fentanyl can be injected, snorted/sniffed, smoked and taken orally (through pills or tablets). Abusers are also known to inject or ingest fentanyl patches.

How does fentanyl affect the body?

A: The effects of fentanyl use include, but are not limited to:

  • Temporary feelings of euphoria
  • Relaxation
  • Pain relief
  • Sedation
  • Confusion
  • Seizures and fainting
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Slowed respiration
  • Constricted pupils
  • Death

What are the common street names for fentanyl?

A: Apache, China Girl, China Town, China White, Dance Fever, Goodfellas, Great Bear, He-Man, Poison and Tango & Cash.

Our complete coverage on fentanyl abuse can be found here. More information is available through the Drug Enforcement Administration’s fact sheet.