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Opioid Facts

What is an Opioid?

  • Opioids are a class of drugs that includes the illegal drug heroin as well as power pain relievers available by prescription, such as oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, fentanyl, methadone, and many others.
  • Opioids bind to mu-opioid receptors on the nerve cells in the brain and body to reduce pain and suppress coughs when used legitimately, but can also cause intense euphoria or intense high that can lead to dependence and/or addiction, whether the drug ingested is heroin or a legally prescribed drug.
  • The effects of opioids, particularly their rewarding, euphoric effects, are accentuated most when the drugs are delivered rapidly into the brain, thereby causing users “chasing the high” to snort or inject crushed prescription pills or heroin.
  • Opioid overdose effects include severe depression of the respiratory system, potentially causing respiratory arrest, coma, and death. Opioid dependence and withdrawal is characterized by constricted nausea, mental confusion, drowsiness, severe sweats and constipation.
  • Fentanyl, an opioid that is practically and effectively 50 and 100 times more potent than heroin or prescription opioids, is often used to adulterate heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other “street drugs.” Overdose deaths often result from a user’s unwitting purchase and use of fentanyl when believing he or she is purchasing heroin or prescription pills. Fentanyl derivatives such as carfentanil, which is used to anesthetize elephants, is also being used to adulterate heroin, causing cluster overdose deaths.
  • Discussion of opioid prevention, treatment, enforcement, and deterrence in your community should address illicit drugs and prescription drugs, as opioids in all forms are present across the nation.


The Cold, Hard Truth

In 2021, 107,622 lives were lost in the United States due to a drug overdose. This is an average of nearly 295 people per day. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-45.

  • Of this total, approximately 66% of overdose deaths were attributable to opioids.
  • The increase in drug overdose deaths is being driven by illicit fentanyl. It is the most dangerous drug threat facing our nation.
  • Illicit fentanyl is a deadly synthetic opioid that is being mixed into heroin, cocaine, and other street drugs.



  • Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is approximately 100 times more powerful than morphine, the substance to which heroin metabolizes, and is commonly used as an end of life sedative or during operational anesthesia.
  • Fentanyl has historically been marketed for end-stage cancer treatment and applied via patches on the skin. Illicit fentanyl now appears in powder form, and is often visually indistinguishable by law enforcement.
  • Fentanyl appears in fake tablets, pills, and gel capsules attempting to mimic certain prescription drugs. Drug traffickers are using fake pills to exploit the opioid crisis and prescription drug misuse.
  • It only takes a very small dose of fentanyl, 2 milligrams, to be lethal. By comparison, a sweetener packet found on a restaurant tabletop generally contains 1,000 milligrams per packet.
  • Drug abusers, law enforcement officers, first responders, or family members who are unaware of its presence or lethality can be inadvertently exposed to fentanyl.


How Did this Opioid Problem Get to my Community?

  • Opioids, particularly diverted prescription drugs, often enter the community through the family medicine cabinet, theft and robbery of local pharmacies, and through fraudulent prescriptions.
  • Heroin, fentanyl, and fake prescriptions drugs are also sold by drug trafficking organizations and street gangs already operating in a community.
  • Additionally, many opioids can be purchased via the Internet; social media sites such as Facebook, Google, and Craigslist, among others; as well as a myriad of sites on the Dark Web. They are then shipped discreetly via commercial parcel delivery carriers such as the U.S. Post Office, FedEx, DHL, or UPS.


What is Being Done to Curb this Epidemic?

  • The government at all levels—career public servants, law enforcement, and public health officials—have partnered with educators, treatment professionals, and non-profit organizations, to bring awareness and develop strategies and solutions for your community.
  • Strategies include targeted and proactive drug law enforcement activity to dismantle the trafficking organizations; prevention programs and drug awareness and education campaigns; and intervention and treatment options that address the short and long-term health of addicts and recovering addicts.
  • Countless local, tribal, and regional efforts, tailored to the specific needs of a community, are underway and supported by national and international efforts which focus on various parts of this problem.
  • In September 2021, DEA launched the One Pill Can Kill enforcement effort and public awareness campaign to combat the fake pill threat and educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl pills being disguised and sold as prescription medications, despite these pills not containing any of the actual medications advertised. More information can be found at


What Can You Do?

  • Have a meaningful conversation with your family. Reject the notion that “it can’t happen to you or your family.” Talk aloud about the threat opioid abuse brings to your family. Commit to asking the tough questions. You can use the DEA resource “What Every Parent and Caregiver Needs to Know About Fake Pills.” to help start the conversation
  • Invest in your family and community’s future. Many intensely affected regions routinely host public forums, town halls, prevention activities at schools, community vigils, walks, and fun runs. Get involved and participate.
  • Speak up. Contact law enforcement when you suspect drug-related activity in your neighborhood. Successful policing relies on a whole-community approach to identify and bring drug trafficking organizations to justice.
  • Keep any prescription drugs in your house secure and locked away, out of reach of others.
  • Take advantage of national or local take back days sponsored by law enforcement or your local pharmacy to discard any unneeded drugs.
Updated November 28, 2022