Fentanyl abuse and addiction have become a major public health issue in the United States today, including in the state of California. Fentanyl is now considered to be the drug that is driving the opioid crisis in many places in the country. A link in the fentanyl chain is what are known as fentanyl mills. In order to better understand the fentanyl crisis in this day and age, you need to have a basic understanding of the operations of fentanyl mills in the United States.
There are four primary points to consider when it comes to looking inside fentanyl mills:
- Comparison fentanyl mills with meth labs
- Illicit imports of fentanyl
- Packaging fentanyl
- Pressing pills
Fentanyl Mills Versus Meth Labs
The media has reported far more extensively on meth labs over the course of the past 30 years. Of course, part of the reason is that the widespread use of meth predates the rise of fentanyl abuse and addiction in the United States and elsewhere around the world.
The long-term focus on meth labs has resulted in a considerable but understandable degree of confusion about what goes on in a fentanyl lab. In a meth lab, that drugs is being manufactured from scratch. While there are examples of fentanyl mills at which fentanyl is being manufactured from scratch, that is not the most common activity that takes place at these mills.
The biggest difference between meth labs and most fentanyl labs is found in the fact that at most fentanyl labs what is occurring is what fairly can be called “repackaging.” What that means is that fentanyl made somewhere else is being repackaged for sale to users. In most instances, this repackaging takes four forms:
- Packaging of fentanyl powder into small packets
- Pressing of fentanyl into pill form
- Blending of fentanyl with other drugs (chiefly heroin or cocaine)
- Packaging fentanyl identified as being another drug (usually heroin)
Illicit Imports of Fentanyl
In the United States at this time the vast majority of fentanyl that ends up on the streets in the illegal market is imported into the country from other countries with lax laws regarding this drug. Specifically, China and Mexico have had lax laws regarding fentanyl. This includes weak laws governing fentanyl technically being legally made at pharmaceutical companies. In other words, a notable percentage of fentanyl being illegally sold on the streets of the U.S.A. actually can trace its origins to pharmaceutical companies in a country like China.
Fentanyl produced in foreign countries ends up in the hands of dealers who operate so-called fentanyl mills. These individuals take the “raw fentanyl” or fentanyl powder obtained from the illicit international market and repackage it into small packets or into pill form.
When fentanyl is packaged in powder form at a fentanyl mill, it is put on the street in forms that include being placed in tiny plastic bags. There are also fentanyl mill operators that press fentanyl between small pieces of wax paper. Oftentimes, these individual packages or fentanyl have “brand names” stamped on them.
If there is any benefit to this type of packaging, the identifiers mentioned as being brand names provide a means of tracking the course of fentanyl in some situations. For example, in many cases, multiple people will overdose using a particular “batch” of fentanyl. This includes individuals who fatally overdose. Ultimately, this imprint on an illicit “package” of fentanyl ultimately can allow the identification of a fentanyl mill operator or dealer and a situation of multiple situations in which a person or persons fatally overdosed using the drug.
Another way in which fentanyl mills operate is by pressing fentanyl into pill form. People who use illegally obtained fentanyl have a preference for the drug in pill form.
An important point needs to be made about fentanyl pressed into pill form. Many times, a fentanyl mill operator or dealer will press fentanyl into a pill form to mimic another type of legal medication. For example, a pill presser may “design” a fentanyl pill to resemble oxycodone. In some cases, a user knows the drug as fentanyl. On the other hand, in some situations, a person seeking oxycodone receives “counterfeit” pills that actually are fentanyl. (This scenario is one that underpins a good many cases of fentanyl overdoses – because a user doesn’t realize that he or she is ingesting the hazardous and powerful fentanyl.) More on the misidentification of fentanyl is discussed in a moment.
Another type of operation that can occur at a fentanyl mill is the blending of fentanyl with other drugs, specifically with heroin or cocaine. This most often is called cutting. In other words, fentanyl is used to cut heroin or cocaine.
Fentanyl is used as a cutting agent for two primary reasons. First, fentanyl is cheaper than heroin and cocaine. Thus, a dealer is able to stretch his or her inventory of heroin or cocaine cutting one or another of these drugs with fentanyl. Second, cutting heroin or cocaine with fentanyl provides a more significant “rush” or “high” to users of heroin or cocaine.
As mentioned a moment ago, there are instances in which a user is aware that heroin or cocaine has been cut with fentanyl. However, there are cases in which a heroin or cocaine user has no knowledge that his or her “drug of choice” has been cut with fentanyl.
Misidentifying Fentanyl as Another Drug
As discussed briefly a moment ago, certain fentanyl mill operations are involved in disguising fentanyl in one way or another. Examples of when this has occurred presented thus far essentially involved fentanyl being blended with some other drug. In some such situations, users are not aware of the presence of fentanyl in a drug concoction they use.
There is an increasing number of fentanyl mills in which fentanyl ends up being presented to users as being some other drug. Most commonly, fentanyl is cut, packaged, and sold to users under the ruse that it is heroin.
Because fentanyl is significantly more powerful than heroin, and because heroin users don’t know that they are in fact using fentanyl, overdoses are commonplace. This includes an alarming number of people who tragically overdose because they don’t know what drug they actually are using.