Dealers Add Fentanyl to Cocaine to “Make it Better, Make the Junkies Come Back Faster”

Cocaine closeup

With powerful fentanyl being found in cocaine, methamphetamine, counterfeit pills and Spice, it’s a more life-threatening world in which to abuse drugs than ever before.

In a BBC video, a drug dealer in Illinois summed up why he chooses to mix the powerful opioid fentanyl into the cocaine he sells: “We mix fentanyl with the cocaine to make it better and make the junkies come back faster.” With that ruthless statement, that dealer explains why some people just looking to party with a little coke could find themselves addicted to opioids. Addicted, and far more likely to experience a fatal overdose.

Yes, it is possible to overdose on cocaine. A cocaine overdose might come in the form of a fatal heart attack or what’s called an aortic dissection. What this means is that the major artery carrying blood away from the heart shreds under the strain of this strong stimulant drug. But the majority of overdoses in this country result from opioids. All it takes to fatally OD on opioids is a dose that’s just a little stronger than you’re used to. Your breathing slows down, you snore heavily, gasping for air. And finally, the breathing stops. Life ends.

So why does putting fentanyl in the cocaine make a “junkie”—that dealer’s name for a drug user or addicted customer—come back sooner? A strong opioid is more quickly addictive for a lot of people than a single use of cocaine. Just one shot of fentanyl could set up cravings for more of the same and bring those customers back quickly and whether they want to come back or not. It’s a heartless way to build your customer base.

A Closer Look at Fentanyl

Fentanyl grains
Fentanyl grains.

Drugs from the fentanyl family are far more powerful than any other opioids. How strong? A scale of equivalence between these different drugs is below. The painkilling opioid morphine is used as a basic measurement of 1 and the relative strength of all the other drugs are shown as multiples of that strength.

  • Morphine = 1
  • Hydrocodone = 1
  • Oxycodone = 1.5
  • Codeine = 3
  • Methadone = 3
  • Heroin = 2 to 5
  • Buprenorphine = 40
  • Fentanyl = 50 to 100
  • 3-methylfentanyl = 400
  • Carfentanil = 10,000

There are three drugs from the fentanyl family listed here but actually, there are dozens of variations of this drug on the illicit market and several that are used in medical or veterinary treatment.

All the drugs on this list are used in human medicine except carfentanil which is intended only for very large animals. But drug dealers even mix this drug with inert ingredients and pass it off as heroin to unsuspecting buyers. The drug 3-methylfentanyl previously had medical uses but is now found on the illicit market.

Cartels in Mexico Join in

It’s not just street-level dealers that are adding fentanyl to their wares. Both the Jalisco New Generation and Sinaloa cartels in Mexico have been adding fentanyl to their other products for the last few years. But if they ship a load of heroin already adulterated with fentanyl to this country, and then the street-level dealer cuts the heroin with inert ingredients and drops in more fentanyl, you could easily have people overdosing on this batch.

And that’s exactly what has occurred: tens of thousands of overdoses every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29,406 people died from overdoses of synthetic opioids in 2017. This class of drug includes only fentanyl and tramadol, but tramadol use or misuse does not generally result in an overdose death.

Cocaine, Methamphetamine and Marijuana?

Medical professional writing down he formulas

The number of instances of fentanyl being found as an ingredient in a non-opioid illicit drug has been increasing for the last couple of years. In 2016, the National Forensic Laboratory Information System reported 1,500 drug seizures that contained a combination of cocaine and fentanyl. In 2017 and 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued warnings about widespread fentanyl-cocaine mixes on the market in Florida and Pennsylvania.

In New York City, fentanyl was responsible for 44% of the overdose deaths and has also been found in benzodiazepines, counterfeit opioid pills, ketamine, and methamphetamine. And all it takes is a pill press, some powder and coloring to make a mix of fentanyl and baby laxative look like OxyContin or Valium. Many people think it’s safer to misuse pills than street drugs because they “come from a pharmacy.” But if they are counterfeited by a drug trafficking organization, those pills could contain a deadly mix of drugs.

In 2015, Canadian officials warned that fentanyl was being found in samples of marijuana. In September 2018, Philadelphia first responders had to scramble to save the lives of at least 110 people exposed to fentanyl that was included in packages of synthetic marijuana. Seven people died.

WIth a heartless, ruthless attitude about addicting their customers, drug cartels and dealers may choose to add fentanyl to any drug on the illicit market. Drug abuse has always been dangerous, but this new world of adding fentanyl to any illicit drug could make any person’s next high their last one. At this time, it is more critically important than ever to prevent drug use from starting and to help an addicted person find recovery.

When they get a supply of any drug, they can’t really be sure of what they are getting. It could easily be a hit that could cause an OD or even death.

Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.