Fentanyl—The Drug Ten Times More Potent Than Heroin

Fentanyl lethal dose
(Fentanyl lethal dose. Image courtesy of the DEA.)

It’s difficult to single out any, one drug as being “the worst drug” of them all. Different drugs have varying degrees of harm for those who consume them. Some drugs are more dangerous than others (take marijuana compared to heroin, for example), but the measure of the danger in a drug habit is more about how the drug is affecting the addict’s life. It's less about the type of drug that the addict is using.

But if there were to be one exception to that rule, the exception would be fentanyl. Highly toxic, very potent, extremely lethal, fentanyl is an opioid drug that is responsible for more overdoses and more deaths than all other drugs combined.

Fentanyl Defined

The title of this article claims that fentanyl is ten times more potent than heroin. And that claim is not an exaggeration. Fentanyl is a pharmaceutical opioid, a medicine which was initially created to help cancer patients contend with massive levels of sudden, overwhelming pain.

“Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines fentanyl quite well. According to NIDA, “Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is a prescription drug that is also made and used illegally. Like morphine, it is a medicine that is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, especially after surgery.”

The problem with fentanyl is that it is no longer used as it was intended. The drug initially received FDA approval in 1960 for use in treating cancer patients only. The spectrum of fentanyl use has changed a lot since then—and not for the better.

From about 1960 to 2000, the original FDA restriction was honored. But after the turn of the century (around the same time that other drug companies were pressuring doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers in excessive quantities to patients who did not need them), fentanyl manufacturers began to pressure doctors to do the same with fentanyl.

A recent court case is exposing just how bad this problem has gotten. Pharma representatives convinced and bribed doctors to prescribe fentanyl to patients who did not have cancer, patients who didn’t need the drug, and patients who were at-risk for opioid misuse. The result was that thousands of American patients were put on prescriptions for potent and dangerous painkillers that they should never have been put on.

This shift on the opioid spectrum in the early 2000s led to the opioid epidemic. It led to fentanyl’s rise to the position of the single most dangerous drug in America.

Fentanyl Statistics

The statistics on the opioid addiction of the 21st-century are proof enough that an increase in fentanyl manufacture, prescribing, and consumption was a huge mistake. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Fentanyl is the primary driver in the recent increase in opioid overdose deaths.
  • Fentanyl is now being made illegally in the U.S. and other countries, and is often termed “illicitly manufactured fentanyl.” The majority of opioid overdoses in the U.S. are now attributed to illicitly manufactured fentanyl or some other type of fentanyl.
  • The CDC also commented on data from U.S. law enforcement. Law enforcement officers suspected that fentanyl is behind much of the illegal opioid drug trade as it is occurring today. According to a CDC publication (under the heading "The Problem”), “Reports from law enforcement indicate that much of the synthetic opioid overdose increase may be due to illegally or illicitly made fentanyl. Confiscations, or seizures, of fentanyl increased by nearly 7 fold from 2012 to 2014. There were 4,585 fentanyl confiscations in 2014. This suggests that the sharp rise in fentanyl-related deaths may be due to increased availability of illegally made, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, and not prescribed fentanyl.”

The upsurge in the trafficking and trading of illicit fentanyl has had the direct result of an increase in opiate overdose deaths. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that synthetic opioids are the leading cause of overdose (fatal and non-fatal alike) in the U.S. NIDA also reports that this class of drug is responsible for almost half of all drug-related deaths.

“Among the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2017, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs (other synthetic narcotics) with more than 28,400 overdose deaths.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also reported on the drastic rise in fentanyl misuse, and what that has done for American vitality. According to the NIDA publication, fentanyl is the primary reason for such a rapid increase in drug deaths in the U.S. The NIDA writers cited above said that “Among the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2017, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs (other synthetic narcotics) with more than 28,400 overdose deaths.”

Helping Someone Overcome an Addiction to Fentanyl

Fentanyl addict

Because of how potent fentanyl is (ten times more potent than heroin, 50-100 times more potent than morphine), an addiction to fentanyl should be appropriately treated, and it should be treated immediately. Fentanyl addiction is a life-or-death matter. It’s not something to mess around with. It’s not something to be lackadaisical about. It’s not something to waste time over. Someone who is addicted to fentanyl, whether they were prescribed it legitimately or not, should do their best to get off the drug as soon as possible.

But in that same token, no one should attempt to get off fentanyl on their own. Coming down off drugs on one's own is painful, and it's dangerous. The only way to properly withdraw off opioids is with the help of a residential treatment center.

If you know someone who struggles with an addiction to fentanyl, your priority becomes getting that person help through a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Their days could be numbered, and the sooner you get them into a qualified residential rehab, the better chance you have at saving their life.

Just remember, 70,237 people died from drug overdoses in 2017. Almost half of those deaths were caused by fentanyl. That’s one drug responsible for 28,400 deaths in just one year.


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



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.