When his son fell prey to America’s latest drug scourge, Joel Murphy, a funeral-home worker, knew his family had plenty of company.

He could see it in the faces of the dead.

Many of the corpses he picked up on the job were men in their 20s, with close-cropped hair, baseball caps and gaunt frames. They made him think of his youngest son, Joseph.

“I see him sometimes, I see him in a lot of them,” he said.

This is the human toll of the illegally made painkiller fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic that presents a new level of peril in the opioid crisis ravaging the U.S. Up to 50 times as powerful as heroin, and cheaper to produce, fentanyl is the end result of a drug trade that has proven wildly innovative and difficult to stop. 

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Unlike heroin, which requires large swaths of land for poppy production, fentanyl is the product of simple chemistry. U.S. officials believe much of the supply comes from illegal labs in Mexico, meaning there is no need for prescribing doctors, the enablers of an earlier generation of American pain-pill abuse. Some buyers have even ordered fentanyl, or close imitations of it, through the mail from factories in China.

Fentanyl is a reason why deadly overdoses from painkillers continue to climb in the U.S., reaching a record 18,893 in 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Fentanyl-related fatalities are soaring in many parts of New England, the Midwest and the South. In 12 states racked by the crisis, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Ohio, more than 5,500 people died of fentanyl-related overdoses between 2013 and 2015, according to data compiled by The Wall Street Journal. The figure likely is higher because only partial numbers are available for some years.

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