Carfentanil Rising: What You Need to Know About the Drug

Carfentanil has become a key topic for health officials and law enforcement who work to combat this synthetic opioid’s responsibility for addiction and death that continues to rise.



Every day, more than 90 Americans die after overdosing on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Policy (NIH). And, addicts continue to seek stronger, more powerful drugs. Carfentanil is one of the substances now ravaging our communities — it also happens to be one of the most potent.

Statistics on Opioid Abuse

Prescription opioid sales have quadrupled from 1999-2010. And unfortunately, as the amount of opioid-related overdoses increase, the amount of pain that Americans have reported has not gone down, according to independent studies conducted by medical professionals and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

NIH also estimates:

  • Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients with an opioid prescription for chronic pain misuse it.
  • Between 8 and 12 percent of patients with opioid prescriptions develop an opioid use disorder.
  • About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.
What is Carfentanil?

Carfentanil is a chemical compound derivative that has a similar structure to that of the synthetic opioid analgesic, fentanyl. It comes in the form of a white, powdery substance.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, carfentanil is the most potent commercial opioid in the world. A unit of carfentanil is:

  • 100 times more potent than the same amount of fentanyl
  • 5,000 times as potent as a unit of heroin
  • 10,000 times more potent than a unit of morphine.
How Does Carfentanil Differ from Fentanyl?

Fentanyl often makes headlines as a cautionary tale. Though fentanyl has the ability to work miracles for patients in severe pain, like those with cancer, it’s also linked to many untimely deaths, including musician Prince.

Unlike fentanyl, carfentanil is not meant for human consumption.

The only recognized use for carfentanil is for the sedation of larger zoo animals like elephants, moose and buffalo. To sedate a 2,000-pound African elephant it only requires two milligrams of carfentanil – that’s about the same size as a tiny pinch of salt.

Besides its use as a tranquilizer for large zoo animals, carfentanil has been studied as a potential chemical weapon.

As illicit manufacturers continue to find ways to sell more potent, and less expensive products to their street consumers, they have begun introducing synthetic opioids to the market. Police have seen a sharp rise in overdose deaths caused by heroin laced with fentanyl and carfentanil.

How a Carfentanil High Affects the Body

Carfentanil affects opioid receptors in the brain that are responsible for control of pain and emotions, which gives the user the euphoric feeling they seek.

The problem is, the drug releases dopamine by binding to sites of the brain that also control the respiratory system. If the user loses control of their respiratory system, they can stop breathing.

Addicts using these extremely strong drugs are playing a dangerous game with their lives because it’s almost impossible for them to be aware of their limits, especially in the case of laced street drugs where quantities are unknown.

First responders increasingly rely on naloxone to undo the damage done to the part of the brain responsible for breathing. Without knowing the potencies of illicit street drugs, it’s hard for paramedics and doctors to judge how much nalaxone to use in overdose incidents.

In the 1980s, nalaxone used to be a drug that would expire on ambulances from underuse. Now, vast demand increases by first responders and others to reverse overdose has driven prices up by 1000 percent.

Is Carfentanil Use on the Rise?

The opioid epidemic is widespread. Unlike the illicit drug scene in the 90s, opioid abuse spans demographics, touches people of all ages, all races and all walks of life. Data collected by CDC indicates the problem is getting worse, and use of carfentanil is rising.

While the presence of lethal carfentanil grows in communities across the country, due to limited funding and the high cost of lab tests for it, many county medical examiners and coroners cannot test for the drug. This creates a challenge to knowing exactly how many Americans are dying specifically from carfentanil.

Learn more about which counties are hit hardest by the opioid epidemic.

Megan Wells is a data journalist and digital content editor based in San Francisco, California.