Friday December 9th 2016

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Is fentanyl a “controlled substance”?

Yes, fentanyl is a controlled substance.

More on this legal definition, fentanyl’s abuse potential and its status as a narcotic here. Then, we invite your questions about fentanyl at the end.

What is a “controlled substance”?

The DEA has developed a system of classification for drugs based on the Controlled Substances Act, splitting psychoactive drugs into one of five “schedules” or groups based on both their abuse potential and approved medicinal use (or lack thereof). The five (5) schedules are as follows:

  • Schedule I- No accepted medical use, high potential for abuse. Severe potential for dependence.
  • Schedule II- High potential for abuse, may lead to severe dependence.
  • Schedule III- Moderate to low potential for dependence, less abuse potential than Schedule II but more than
  • Schedule IV- Low potential for abuse, low risk of dependence.
  • Schedule V- Lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV, preparations contain limited quantities of certain narcotics.

Is fentanyl a controlled substance?

Yes.

Legally, fentanyl is a Schedule II substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has a high abuse potential and may lead to severe dependence. In fact, fentanyl’s euphoric effect has been compared to one which is more intense than heroin. Given this classification, fentanyl is illegal to possess or use without a prescription, and illegal to sell without the appropriate licensing. Illegal possession of fentanyl carries with it severe penalties.

A brief history of fentanyl

Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate painkiller, similar to morphine or heroin but much stronger. It is a prescription medication that is typically administered for postoperative pain or in situations of chronic pain. It is also helpful for pain management in situations where the patient already has some degree of opiate tolerance. However, this man made, synthetic opioid drug is increasingly being illegally bought and sold for its euphoric properties and increased potency over heroin.

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Fentanyl was developed in 1959 by Janssen Pharmaceutica, by the founder, Dr. Paul Janssen. It was quickly adopted by the medical community as a potent anesthetic and analgesic, under the name Sublimaze. The Duragesic patch, which delivered fentanyl through the skin, was developed in the 1990s, and was a more convenient method of administration for patients with more long-term needs, such as cancer or chronic pain. Other forms of fentanyl were later released, such as the lollipop and oral spray, but the patch was and is still the most common.

In recent history, fentanyl has become a threat to public health amidst the opiate epidemic that is sweeping the country, with DEA seizures in 2014 at 3,344 (up from 942 in 2013). Not only has the abuse of fentanyl become far more widespread, but officials are seeing heroin that has been laced with or cut with fentanyl, thus increasing its potency and presenting an increased threat of overdose to unsuspecting users. Further, a synthetic analog of fentanyl (acetyl fentanyl) has also emerged, creating increased access to this dangerous cousin of heroin and morphine.

What is the addictive potential of fentanyl?

Fentanyl is highly addictive.

As mentioned, this medication is a Schedule II substance. Like other opiate and opioid drugs, it increases the levels of dopamine in reward areas of the brain, and can cause a fentanyl “high”. Over time, the body and brain become dependent on the fentanyl for maintaining normal levels of dopamine, leading to sickness and withdrawal when the drug becomes unavailable.

The danger is, fentanyl is extremely potent, meaning that while it takes much smaller amounts to produce a high than with heroin or other opiates, it also takes much less to cause fentanyl overdose and death.

What are the penalties for possession of fentanyl?

Federal penalties for fentanyl possession vary based on amount, related charges, and prior offenses. The breakdown is roughly as follows:

First time offender

  • 40-399g of fentanyl5-40 years in prison
    If death or serious injury is involved, 20 years-life in prison
    Up to 2 million dollar fine
  • 400g or more of fentanyl10 years-life in prison
    Up to 4 million dollar fine

Second time offender

  • 40-399g of fentanyl10 years-life in prison
    If death or serious injury is involved, minimum of life in prison
    Up to 4 million dollar fine
  • 400g or more of fentanyl

20 years-life in prison
If death or serious injury is involved, minimum of life in prison
Up to 8 million dollar fine

While these consequences are steep as it is, they are likely to become even harsher, given the opioid epidemic and growing number of fentanyl-related deaths in recent years.

Your questions about fentanyl

Science suggests there are effective alternative treatments for chronic pain treatment without risking forming addiction. Do you still have questions about using, taking, or possessing fentanyl? Please leave them in the comments section just below. We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly.

Reference Sources: News Medical: Fentanyl History
DEA: Drug info on fentanyl
DEA: Drug Schedules
DEA: Drug Ino
DEA: DEA Issues Nationwide Alert on Fentanyl as Threat to Health and Public Safety

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About Heather King, PhD

Heather King, Ph.D., completed her graduate studies in preclinical substance abuse research in July of 2015. She has authored several peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals on the effects of drug abuse on the brain and behavior, and has personal experience in addiction and recovery. She currently works at Serenity Acres, a drug and alcohol treatment center outside of Annapolis, MD.

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