The Rise Of Illicit Fentanyl Use

Illicit fentanyl is driving the nation’s skyrocketing number of drug overdose deaths. But some people with opioid dependence are also seeking the drug out intentionally. Illicit fentanyl use can carry some serious risks, including overdose.

Rise Of Illicit Fentanyl Use

One of the drugs driving the U.S. overdose crisis is fentanyl. That’s a synthetic opioid that’s become a preferred drug of choice among some people with opioid dependence.

Severe opioid dependence, and opioid use disorder, has become a public health emergency in recent years, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While fentanyl was once feared by those who use opioids, due to its high potency, experts say that intentional fentanyl use is on the rise by those dependent on heroin or prescription opioids.

The Difference Between Legal And Illicit Fentanyl

Fentanyl is a very powerful opioid that comes in the form of a pill or powder.

It’s about 50 times more potent than heroin, an illicit opioid, and up to 100 times more potent than morphine, a natural opiate derived from the opium poppy plant.

Like other prescription opioids, fentanyl is legally prescribed for breakthrough pain, or severe pain conditions in those with a tolerance to other, less potent opioid drugs. 

Illicit fentanyl specifically refers to fentanyl that is manufactured illegally. Illicit fentanyl trafficking and use in the United States has been on the rise, as opioid prescribing has fallen.

Unlike pharmaceutical fentanyl, illicit fentanyl is unregulated. This can make it more dangerous. It’s also often laced into other illicit drugs, like cocaine, meth, and counterfeit pills.

Why Is Illicit Fentanyl Use On The Rise?

Addiction experts say there are multiple things that are factoring into the rise of illicit fentanyl use and a greater number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl. 

One is the gradual shift from heroin use to illicit fentanyl use in recent years. 

Compared to heroin, some people who use illicit fentanyl say the latter produces a stronger high (euphoria). It’s also commonly smoked, and does not have to be injected. 

Further, experts have also pointed out that fentanyl has generally taken over the illicit opioid supply, and finding pure heroin on the street can be difficult, if not an impossibility.

What Are The Risks Of Illicit Fentanyl Use?

Illicit fentanyls and fentanyl analogs (e.g. carfentanil) are some of the most dangerous substances in the illicit drug market today, largely due to their high risk for causing overdose fatalities.

Here is an overview of the primary risks of illicit fentanyl use:

Dangers Of Illicit Drug Use

Taking illicit drugs carries a whole host of risks. Because these drugs aren’t regulated, they may contain any number of toxic chemicals, or other drugs that it was not your intention to take.

Fentanyl has been detected in a number of common street drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine (meth), pills sold as benzodiazepines or stimulants, and more. 

Shorter Duration Of Effects

Experts say that, compared to some other opioids like heroin, the effects of fentanyl don’t last as long. This means you’ll need another dose sooner to get high or stave off withdrawal.

Opioid withdrawal can be highly uncomfortable. This may cause severe agitation, anxiety, drug cravings, nausea, and other unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms.

Fentanyl-Related Overdose

Illicit fentanyl use carries a high risk of overdose, particularly if you take fentanyl on accident, or have not built up a tolerance for opioids.

Illicit fentanyls, not pharmaceutical fentanyl, have become the primary driver of opioid-involved overdose deaths in the latest wave of the opioid crisis.

Even more, because fentanyl is so strong, it can take multiple doses of naloxone (an opioid antagonist) to reverse an opioid-related overdose — something not everyone might be aware of.

What Can Help Prevent Illicit Fentanyl Overdose?

Harm reduction initiatives have been a primary focus of some addiction experts, advocates, and policymakers as the nation’s number of fentanyl-involved overdose deaths has risen dramatically.

Fentanyl overdose prevention initiatives include:

  • drug education and awareness campaigns
  • expanding access to naloxone/Narcan to prevent fentanyl-related death
  • expanding access to fentanyl test strips
  • expanding access to addiction treatment services

Those who do use illicit fentanyl or fentanyl analogs are also advised to take certain precautions. For instance, never use drugs alone (in case you overdose). 

What Is The Treatment For Fentanyl Use And Addiction?

Fentanyl addiction is treatable. The most effective treatment is a combination of behavioral therapy, counseling, and medication.

This is known as medication-assisted treatment. Medication-assisted treatment combines behavioral treatment with a medication that is shown to help treat opioid addiction.

FDA-approved prescription drugs for opioid dependence include:

  • methadone
  • buprenorphine/Suboxone
  • naltrexone

A detox program or an intensive treatment program that can offer additional interventions to address core issues of a substance use disorder may also be recommended.

At, we offer a free helpline that connects people with substance use disorder to free and low-cost addiction treatment options.

This includes:

Find A Free Addiction Treatment Program Today

If you’re looking for a quality, affordable treatment center, look no further. Call our helpline to find addiction treatment options today. 

Published on

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

Free Rehab Centers aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.

These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

[inline-cta type="f" profile="shr" label="Call Now" url="tel:+18667799944" lc="Residential,Drug Addiction"]