AMU APU Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

Illegal Fentanyl Poses an Ongoing Threat to US Communities

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

Illegal fentanyl presents an increasing danger to our society, and this drug exists in communities throughout the United States. While fentanyl is often prescribed as a strong painkiller in clinical settings, it is quickly becoming a common drug that is illegally obtained and abused.

According to the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse (NCAPDA), over 60% of drug overdoses are caused by fentanyl and overdoses are becoming more common. For the first time in U.S. history, more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred within a 12-month period in 2021.

Why Illegal Fentanyl Is Dangerous

What makes fentanyl especially dangerous is that aside from being abused, it can adversely affect people who unintentionally come into contact with it. Exposure from this drug can occur from deliberately snorting, smoking or ingesting the drug, but it can also be introduced into the body through skin contact or inhalation.

According to Fox 5 News out of Washington D.C., the danger of unintentional exposure and the prevalence of fentanyl prompted authorities in Tennessee to issue a warning to the public to avoid picking up folded dollar bills found on the ground due to the danger of exposure to fentanyl residue. Police in Tennessee said that several bills testing positive for fentanyl were found on the ground in Perry County; storing fentanyl in folded dollar bills is a common way for it to be illegally sold on the street.

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According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the reason why simple exposure to fentanyl is so dangerous is because it is an opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Even a small amount (about 5 grains) can cause health problems, such as difficulty breathing.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services also notes that fentanyl comes in a white powder form and there are “42 known illicitly manufactured fentanyl analogs on the market” in the United States. First responders are also in danger of fentanyl exposure when they treat citizens in emergencies or handle items laced with fentanyl residue.

Where Does Fentanyl Come From?

Illegal fentanyl can be easily made in commercial labs or in homemade labs on the streets, so it is more accessible than other opioids. It is also a cheap drug in comparison to the cost of other drugs and is highly addictive, being 50 times stronger than heroin.  

When sold to buyers, fentanyl may be misrepresented by street dealers as another type of drug such as Xanax or oxycodone. Unsuspecting buyers might believe that they are purchasing a less potent opioid or the drug they buy may be laced with fentanyl.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the two primary sources for fentanyl in the United States are Mexico and China. Fentanyl produced in Mexico is trafficked into the United States through the Southwest. Once in the United States, the drug is transported to cities and communities throughout the United States. From China, fentanyl is trafficked through international mail and express consignment operations.

Know the Symptoms of Fentanyl Exposure

Everyone should take the time become aware of the dangers of illicit fentanyl. If you suspect that someone is showing the symptoms of fentanyl exposure, call 911 immediately.

The common symptoms of exposure to fentanyl include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Disorientation
  • Reduced cognition
  • Lethargy and confusion
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nervous system depression

Fortunately, people suffering from fentanyl exposure can be treated by first responders. First responders are likely to administer naloxone in the form of Narcan, a nasal spray that treats opioid overdoses.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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