The synthetic opioid fentanyl is wreaking havoc on the illegal drug market, turning an already frightening overdose crisis into an even deadlier mess.

On the heels of new research out of UCLA, experts are reminding drug users and their loved ones of an invisible danger potentially lurking in each pill or bag that's distributed on the street.

"In many cases, even the local dealers that are selling these drugs are not even aware of what's being put into them," said Angelo Valente, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.

Just a pinch of fentanyl, which can be up 50 times stronger than heroin, is enough to kill a user.

According to UCLA-led research published in the journal Addiction, the proportion of U.S. overdose deaths involving both stimulants, such as methamphetamine or cocaine, and fentanyl increased more than 50-fold from 2010 through 2021.

“Fentanyl has ushered in a polysubstance overdose crisis, meaning that people are mixing fentanyl with other drugs, like stimulants, but also countless other synthetic substances. This poses many health risks and new challenges for healthcare providers," said lead author Joseph Friedman.

According the New Jersey Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner, fentanyl was involved in 79.1% of methamphetamine-related deaths in 2020.

The dangerous additive may be even more prevalent among the supply of illegal opiates. In the third quarter of 2022, according to authorities, 98% of the heroin samples submitted to New Jersey drug labs recorded traces of fentanyl. It was showing up in less than 10% of samples in the middle of last decade.

"I can't stress enough the fact that we don't believe that there's any safe street drug that exists," Valente said.

The profitability linked to fentanyl is essentially cancelling out any fatalities among the drug networks' customer base, experts say. The synthetic drug is easier to transport, has a higher value, and delivers a greater punch — but that punch can be lethal enough that the user wouldn't even respond to antidote drugs like Narcan.

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