How Do I Spot Fentanyl and the Chemicals That Make It?

Police cars

“U.S. agents in southern Arizona say they seized up to 440 pounds of what they suspect is a precursor chemical often used to manufacture the dangerous drug fentanyl.” That is the opening headline from a breaking news segment from January 2023 that announced what many are calling the first case of a drug bust in which criminals were planning to mass-produce fentanyl in the United States. Such a development means American families must learn how to spot fentanyl to keep their family members and loved ones safe.

A New Precedent Set in the Fentanyl Epidemic

Four hundred and forty pounds of anything is a lot, but 440 pounds of a precursor chemical used to make fentanyl is an extremely concerning amount. That chemical could have produced enough fentanyl to kill tens of millions of Americans. Law enforcement officers with Homeland Security Investigations in Tucson were initially alerted to suspicious activity when they noticed a series of packages from China that did not identify their contents, all being sent to one single-family home in a quiet Tucson neighborhood.

“If criminal entrepreneurs start producing fentanyl here, it could become a frightening situation for the United States.”

No arrests were made at the time of the bust, as the home was empty when law enforcement officers raided it. Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, spoke about the concern that everyone was voicing following the drug seizure. “If criminal entrepreneurs start producing fentanyl here, it could become a frightening situation for the United States,” said Vigil. “If the chemicals do turn out to be precursors, this could really aggravate fentanyl distribution and overdoses. Once you have a drug trend like this, it can catch on and spread quickly.” In light of the incident, law enforcement divisions across the U.S. and especially in the Southwest are increasing their efforts to find not just fentanyl but chemicals that may be used to make fentanyl.

Tuscon, Arizona
Tucson, Arizona

At the time of the report, investigators were unsure who was behind the shipments of fentanyl precursor chemicals into Tucson. But if further investigation does show that the chemicals were intended for fentanyl production at a clandestine lab in Tucson or nearby, then the seizure confirms several suspicions. Mainly, drug dealers and traffickers are now trying to make fentanyl in the United States even if they, for the time being, have to get the ingredients from overseas.

Leo Lamas, the deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Tucson, said that while this is the first case in which law enforcement seized precursor chemicals, it is not the first sign that drug cartels are setting the stage for U.S.-based fentanyl production. “Over the last, I would say, a year or so, we have started to uncover pill presses domestically in the United States,” says Lamas. “Certainly, these criminal organizations know the emphasis is at the border. Importing precursors from China and producing fentanyl domestically would be just another mechanism that these criminal organizations will attempt to get their products sold in the United States.” Given the revelations and the possibility that illicit fentanyl may be produced domestically, law enforcement offices and American families must be extremely vigilant.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic (manufactured) opioid 10 to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. While the drug does have some medicinal purposes, it is also a major contributor to fatal and nonfatal overdoses in the United States. Both pharmaceutical fentanyl and illicitly manufactured fentanyl can have mind-altering effects and cause fatal overdoses.

Laboratory microscope

Today, illicitly manufactured fentanyl has completely permeated the drug use landscape, available virtually everywhere. Further, fentanyl is often added to other drugs because of its extreme potency. The result? Fentanyl makes other drugs cheaper, more powerful, more addictive, and far more dangerous.

How Do I Recognize Fentanyl, and What are the Chemicals Used to Make It?

Fentanyl is primarily available in powder form, and unfortunately, it looks like many other drugs like powdered cocaine, meth, or heroin. Fentanyl can also be produced in liquid form. It is nearly impossible to tell whether a batch of drugs has been laced with fentanyl unless one tests it with fentanyl test strips.

Some street names for fentanyl that may be written on packaging include Apache, China Girl, China Town, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Great Bear, He-Man, Jackpot, King Ivory, Murder 8, Poison, and Tango & Cash.

Some of the signs of fentanyl intoxication to look for include the following:

  • Sedation
  • Euphoria
  • Dizziness
  • Pain relief
  • Relaxation
  • Drowsiness
  • Mild confusion
  • Urinary retention
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pupillary constriction
  • Respiratory depression

Overdose signs to be on the lookout for include:

  • Coma
  • Stupor
  • Unconsciousness
  • Respiratory failure
  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Changes in pupillary size
  • Cyanosis (a bluish discoloration of the skin resulting from poor circulation)

If these three symptoms are present together: coma, pinpoint pupils, and respiratory depression, the individual is likely suffering an opioid overdose and should be given naloxone immediately.

According to a report submitted in Vienna, Austria, by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, there are several ways to make fentanyl, which is unfortunate because that means there are several different chemicals that countries must form international agreements and regulations around. For example, the CND prepared a flow chart that shows how fentanyl can be manufactured in at least three different ways using Norfentanyl, N-Phenyl-4-piperidinamine, or tert-Butyl 4-(phenylamino)piperidine-1-carboxylate (1-boc-4-AP).

Americans should keep an eye out for packages labeled with these precursor chemicals and report them to law enforcement if they see them.

The Need for Addiction Treatment for Those Hooked on Fentanyl

More than 150 people die from fentanyl overdoses every day. With the ever-increasing spread of fentanyl nationwide and a growing risk that the drug will be produced domestically, drug use only becomes more dangerous. If you know someone who is using drugs and who cannot stop using them on their own, please help them enter a drug and alcohol rehab center as soon as possible. Please don’t wait until it is too late.


  • USNews. “Chemicals for Possible Fentanyl Production Seized in Arizona.” U.S. News, 2023.
  • CDC. “Fentanyl Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.
  • DEA. “Fentanyl.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2023.
  • UNODC. “April 2022 – UNODC: Three precursors of the most common synthesis routes used in illicit fentanyl manufacture now under international control.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2022.



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.