Prince Overdosed on Fentanyl. What Is It?


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Roughly 300 grams of fentanyl seized by the authorities.

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Katherine Taylor for The New York Times

Minnesota officials reported on Thursday that Prince died in April of an overdose of the opiate fentanyl. The authorities have not revealed how the musician obtained the drug or whether a doctor had prescribed it. But it has been reported that he had hip surgery in the mid-2000s and may have still been in pain.

Fentanyl has become a source of concern for government agencies and law enforcement officials as death rates from fentanyl-related overdoses and seizures of the drug have risen in several states. Here’s what we know about the drug.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, prescribed to help patients deal with severe pain. Opioids help to reduce patients’ perception of their suffering and can induce a state of extreme relaxation and euphoria.

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Prince performing during the halftime show of the NFL’s Super Bowl XLI football game in Miami in 2007.

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Mike Blake/Reuters

When was it introduced?

Fentanyl was synthesized in 1960, and it was introduced as an anesthetic. It is sold under brand names like Actiq, Duragesic and Sublimaze, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

It can be consumed via a patch, an injection, smoking and a lollipop, among other methods.

How powerful is it?

Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and can be 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Even when taken in small amounts, it can be fatal.

Fentanyl is a Schedule 2 drug, meaning that while it is used for medical treatment, it is known to have a high potential for abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is frequently mixed with heroin, cocaine or both when sold illegally, in many cases without the user’s knowledge.

How can it cause death?

An overdose of fentanyl can result in severe respiratory depression or arrest, during which breathing is slowed or ceases altogether.

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How the Epidemic of Drug Overdose Deaths Ripples Across America

Drug deaths have surged in nearly every U.S. county, reaching a new peak in 2014.



OPEN Graphic


Why has it become so prominent?

In March 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a nationwide alert about the dangers of fentanyl. It said that the Mexican authorities had shut down several labs and that fentanyl that had been seized in the Northeast and in California in 2014 had “originated from Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.”

In an article in The New York Times in March, Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, said fentanyl was the cartels’ “drug of choice.”

“They have figured out a way to make fentanyl more cheaply and easily than heroin and are manufacturing it at a record pace,” she said.

When was fentanyl abuse first reported?

According to the D.E.A., episodes of abuse involving fentanyl initially appeared in the mid-1970s. From 2005 to 2007, the agency said, the drug caused more than 1,000 deaths in the United States. The fentanyl that caused those deaths originated in a single lab in Mexico that was later shut down, ending the surge.

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