Nearly one million people have died of drug overdose deaths in the past two decades, but a growing majority of those deaths in recent years have involved dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl. 

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. First synthesized by Belgian chemist Paul Janssen as a painkiller in 1960, it proved to be a useful drug to help patients with traumatic injuries. 

A large pile of fake pills made to look like real prescription pills.

The DEA seized 32,000 fake pills made to look like legitimate prescription pills July 8 and 9 in Omaha, Neb. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

But it wasn’t until roughly the past decade that the drug made its way onto the black market and truly began destroying lives and communities across the U.S.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 108,000 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses between February 2021 and February 2022. Of those, more than 70% involved fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.  


One of the main drivers of fentanyl's proliferation in recent years is cheaper production methods. Whereas other plant-derived drugs like heroin and cocaine need to be grown and cultivated, synthesized drugs like fentanyl are cheaper – both for producers and consumers.

"The production of (heroin) is expensive and time-consuming because you have to use the actual poppy from poppy fields. With fentanyl being a synthetic drug, you eliminate that process, and it’s much more lucrative," a Los Angeles Police officer and drug recognition expert told Fox News Digital. "A legitimate 40-milligram OxyContin pill will be around $40 bucks. You can get these illicit pills, like the M-30s, for $10 or $15 bucks each." 

The expert asked to remain anonymous because the expert was not authorized to speak with the media.

Fentanyl pills inside potato chip container

Suspects arrested in connection with trafficking fentanyl were linked to a transnational criminal organization known to smuggle drugs, authorities said. (Whatcom County Sheriff's Office)

The officer, who has been on the force around two decades, has seen the drug affect rich and poor.

"I feel like fentanyl touches everyone. Because you have your different forms," the officer said. "You have people that are just using it in the powder form – they're smoking it off of foil – your transients in Skid Row. And then you have your big-name celebrities like (rapper) Mac Miller or (MLB player) Tyler Scaggs, who have more than enough money to buy whatever drugs they want, but they're … unknowingly overdosing on fentanyl." 

Largest DEA fentanyl bust in California history

This photo shows the largest seizure of fentanyl pills in California history. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

Investigative journalist and author Ben Westhoff, who chronicled the rise of the fentanyl epidemic in his book, "Fentanyl, Inc.," said it wasn’t until dealers really realized they could make so much more money by cutting other drugs with fentanyl that it became sort of a supply-driven phenomenon." 

"Nobody saw it coming. Partly it was that production methods got simpler. There was a new production method that was discovered," Westhoff said. 

Westhoff traces the modern crisis back to 2005, when U.S. lawmakers were cracking down on methamphetamine in the U.S. The U.S. Senate banned over-the-counter sales of cold medicines that contained pseudoephedrine, which is commonly used to make methamphetamine. 


Subsequently, many of the backwoods meth labs scattered throughout the U.S. moved to Mexico. These labs, Westhoff said, evolved into "super labs" that received precursor ingredients directly from China, a relationship that continues today. 

Now, chemicals used to make fentanyl are almost entirely sold to Mexican drug cartels from China. The cartels then package the fentanyl into other drugs like Xanax and Adderrall, and ship them to the U.S. to be sold on the black market. Consequently, most Americans who die of fentanyl-related overdose deaths aren’t even aware they’re consuming it.  

One of those many victims was Tom Weis, who died of a fentanyl-related overdose at the age of 28. His mother, Mary Pratt-Weis, told Fox News Digital her son had struggled with addiction in the past but was starting to get his life back on track and was enrolled in a rehab program.

"He started sharing and leading Heroin Anonymous meetings. He was helping a lot of people get sober. He was really an icon in the community. Everybody knew him, everywhere he went. He just always lit up a room," Pratt-Ws said. 

Weis was also a talented artist and was doing well financially, selling his artwork at festivals. 

"He would do these huge murals while bands would be playing. And people would watch him perform painting," Pratt-Weis said. 

Things took a toll, however, with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Weis, who was prone to anxiety and panic attacks, took a turn for the worse. He died of an overdose July 19, 2021. Weis' autopsy report revealed he had Klonopin, a highly addictive drug used to treat panic attacks, and fentanyl in his system. 

"The fact that Klonopin and fentanyl was in his system tells me that he was stressed, and he probably just wanted to have a little something calm him down," Pratt-Weis said. "But I highly doubt he would have taken enough to OD if he knew what was in it." 


Weis' story could have happened to anybody. That is why Pratt-Weis, who is now on a mission to educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl, says the drug recognizes no race, class or gender. 

"I have a friend now whose daughter is addicted to fentanyl, and she’s gone through literally hell trying to get her into a rehab facility," Pratt-Weis said. "My neighbor behind me that just bought the house, they just lost a twin daughter to fentanyl in October last year." 

Still, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. can stop fentanyl completely from coming into the country. All sources who spoke to Fox News Digital on the topic said there aren't enough resources being devoted to the problem. In some cases, local authorities are even moving backward in terms of funding. 

"I definitely think we're falling way short. We need to be treating it like COVID, an all-hands-on-deck situation," Westhoff said. 

Despite a lack of resources, both Westhoff and Pratt-Weis agreed that educating the public can go a long way in combating this problem. 


"Education is key. People need to be talking to their kids. They need to be telling them not to try anything. They need to be scrutinizing texts of their children under 18 (and) educating them in the sense that these things, even antidepressants, can be laced," Pratt-Weis said. "Everyone, sooner or later, will have somebody they know that’s been affected. I believe it's super important right now for people to be educated."