Illicit opioids are killing an unprecedented number of Americans and the number of deaths is on the rise. According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this drug overdose epidemic is likely fueled by illegally manufactured fentanyl.

Dramatic increase in overdose deaths

In a study published by the CDC, the number of people who overdosed and died from synthetic opioids was 3,105 in 2013. By the end of 2014, that number increased to 5,544. The majority of the deaths occurred in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and North Carolina, and were mostly non-Hispanic white men between 25 and 44.

While not every state separates fentanyl deaths from deaths resulting from other imitation opioids, six states do track how many overdosed while using specifically fentanyl. In 2013, there were 400 overdose deaths directly related to illegal fentanyl, while 2014 saw an increase to 1,400.

Ohio and Florida were the hardest hit

Drug seizures in Florida increased 494 percent, while overdose deaths rose 115 percent. There was a 1,043 percent upsurge in drug raids and a 526 percent increase in deaths in Ohio. This is in spite of the fact that legal fentanyl prescriptions actually decreased by seven percent in Ohio.

How Americans get illegal synthetic fentanyl

Alarmed by the increase, the CDC examined how fentanyl is being obtained.

The agency took a look at prescription rates and drug seizures from 2013 to 2014 and found prescription rates remained steady, but the death rate went up. During this same time period, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) found a 426 percent increase in illegal fentanyl after testing seized drugs.

Mass-produced and cheap

It appears that illegal fentanyl is triggering the surge in opioid overdose deaths among Americans. Based on the data, the CDC believes legally-obtained drugs are not causing the epidemic, but illegally mass-produced fentanyl disguised as heroin or other fake prescription drugs.

The DEA says illegal fentanyl is being brought into the U.S. from China and Mexico and users do not know they are taking a potentiality deadly drug. Since illegal fentanyl is cheap, many drug dealers dilute heroin with the drug in order to make their supply last longer.

Illegal fentanyl in disguise

Earlier this year, illegal fentanyl was being sold in California under the guise it was the prescription drug Norco. Over a 10-day period, 48 people overdosed and 10 died. In just over five days, 90 people died in Cincinnati, Ohio after taking synthetic fentanyl. After seizing pills labeled as hydrocodone, investigators have linked the death of pop icon Prince in April to fentanyl.

Very potent opioid

Legal fentanyl is commonly prescribed to help control and relieve chronic pain, especially for patients suffering from cancer. The drug is much more potent than morphine and even heroin.

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