Fentanyl has become the new deadly killer in the drug epidemic, and medical experts, EMS, and law enforcement are seeing overdoses and deaths unmatched by other drugs. But what is the history of this substance originally designed for cancer patients?

Fentanyl first appears 53 years ago

According to multiple sources, including a very in-depth report from the website Pharmaceutical Technology, the drug was first created, or synthesized, by Belgian chemist Dr. Paul Janssen, who would later create the company Janssen Pharmaceutica.

Previously the inventors of the drug phenoperidine, in 1960 Janssen and his team created Fentanyl. At the time, it was the most powerful painkiller in the world, 100 times more potent than morphine.

It was designed for cancer and terminal patients who had developed tolerances to morphine or other pain management drugs. It was first introduced in European nations in 1963, but the FDA did not clear it in the US until 1968. For a number of years it was only prescribed along with another drug, Droperidol, to combat what medical experts said was an addiction danger.

In the 1980's and 90's a variety of dispensing techniques were developed, from dermal or skin patches to even a lollipop. The ALVA Corporation created a widely-used skin patch called Duragesic, but a few years later the FDA began to investigate the drug due to growing reports of overdoses and abuse. 

Fentanyl pills (US District Attorney's Office Eastern WA)
Fentanyl pills (US District Attorney's Office Eastern WA)

 The modern epidemic began around 2008

As patents for the drug expired, a wide variety of companies, some of them illegal, began to produce Fentanyl, and then in the early 2010's we began to see newer and more highly synthesized powerful versions of the drug.  Reports began to circulate about drug operations in Mexico, utilizing supplies from China, to create drugs that could potentially kill with a single dose.

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  The third wave, as it is called by many medical experts, consists of drugs that are noticeably more powerful than the original from 1960. It is often mixed with other drugs and sold as heroin, but buyers and users often don't know that. There is also a growing threat from another fentanyl derivative, known as carfentanyl, which is 100 times stronger than fentanyl itself. Carfentanyl is only used (legally) as an elephant tranquilizer.

The first widely known public figure victim of fentanyl was the musician-performer Prince in 2016.  Authorities say it is possible he did not know he was taking it. Because of its powerful addictive properties, it has become the drug of "choice" for many cartels, who are now flooding the US with the drug.


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