How’s the Drug Trade Doing?

A small amount of white fentanyl is shown next to a much larger penny.
Even that much fentanyl can kill most people. (DEA, 2018)

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t thought a lot about drugs in the past few months. However, even as the pandemic claims hundreds of thousands of lives, it is important to remember that people are still dying of other causes. Wars are still being fought, terrorist attacks are still killing, and heart attacks are still happening. One of the myriad of ways Americans succumb to death are drug overdoses. When you think of dying from taking drugs, you likely imagine shady deals on street corners. Nowadays, however, synthetic opioids are the cause of most drug-related deaths, killing over 19,000 a year. For reference, that’s equivalent to a 9/11 every two months. Most of this tragedy is caused by illegal fentanyl. So, what is that, and what can we do to reduce the number of people harmed by it?

Fentanyl: From Pain Treater to Dance Fever

Fentanyl was originally produced by the pharmaceutical industry to provide pain relief for acute cancer patients. That’s why it’s 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. Almost immediately, drug companies began marketing fentanyl to patients who didn’t need it, in some cases even offering bribes and publishing a rap video (I’m not joking). On top of that, illicit labs began forming around the world, and fentanyl can now be found mixed in with cocaine, heroin, and other drugs. This means that many who die of fentanyl overdose didn’t even know what killed them. In addition, because fentanyl is so potent, it only takes tiny miscalculations for someone to die. That might explain street names like “poison” and “murder 08.” Other names, like “China girl,” “Chinatown,” and “China white,” can be accounted for by the fact that most of the fentanyl in the U.S comes from China. There’s two routes it might take to get here:

You might notice that both of these paths have steps that were damaged by the pandemic. It also doesn’t help that Wuhan is a major hub of fentanyl production. This begs the question, how exactly was fentanyl impacted by COVID-19?

Panic At The Production Facility

As Wuhan closed down and word of the virus spread, advertisements online began to inform buyers that supply and shipment were currently impossible, but as soon as shipping restarted they (the Chinese producers) would talk to wholesalers. Soon, Mexican cartels turned to the Shan State in Myanmar for supplies. Even so, the DEA has reported that supply is constricted, yet deaths stay stable. This period only lasted a couple of months, and now that Wuhan has largely reopened, we expect fentanyl deaths to continue increasing. Interestingly, while smuggling into the U.S has gone down significantly, domestic drug traffickers continue to sell, suggesting they stockpiled for such an occasion.

What To Do

As you can see, illicit fentanyl has cost thousands of lives, and doesn’t seem to be slowed much by the pandemic. What can we do to reduce its harm and prevent people from getting addicted?

It’s unlikely that fentanyl will cease to be a problem in the near future; it’s just too addictive and too widespread. Just because that’s true doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to slow it.


Chapman, B. (2019, May 3). Billionaire drug company founder guilty of bribing doctors to prescribe dangerous opioid. The Independent.

Fentanyl. (n.d.). United States Drug Enforcement Agency. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from

Fentanyl DrugFacts. (2019). National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Insys executives used rap video to push sales of potentially lethal opioid. (2019, February 14). CBS News.

Katz, J., Goodnough, A., & Sanger-Katz, M. (2020, July 15). In Shadow of Pandemic, U. S. Drug Overdose Deaths Resurge To Record. The New York Times.

Shelley, L. (2020). Fentanyl, Covid-19, and Public Health. World Medical & Health Policy, 12(4), 390–397.

United States Drug Enforcement Agency. (2018). Fentanyl [Photograph].



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