COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) – It's 40 times more powerful than heroin and 80 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl is claiming thousands of lives.
The prescription version of the opioid is highly regulated, but what's on the street is an illegal chemistry creation also known as Apache, China Girl, TNT, Dance Fever, China White, and Murder 8.
It's a wakeup call in our area and nationwide, because fentanyl is so strong that when dealers secretly lace it into heroin, customers experience a new, extreme high, one that can kill them. A drug that toxic and a high that strong is what these dealers are selling.
With a heroin overdose, one syringe of the overdose-reversing naloxone is usually all it takes to save a life. Add a single speck of pure fentanyl into the bag of dope she injected, and it may take six times the amount of naloxone to bring her back.
"I could literally take the smallest grain that you could see with your eye and that would be a dose. I started taking that around and giving it to people and it just blew up my reputation," an anonymous former dealer said. We'll call him "Sim."
It's a narcotic like heroin, but stronger, cheaper and easier to make.
"You're getting more bang for your buck," Sim added.
But unlike dope, it can be conveniently shipped right to your door.
"Seems too good to be true having drugs come to you in the mail but they sure came!" Sim said.
A local pharmacist showed us how fentanyl comes in a patch that you apply to your skin.
Once prescribed, the opioid fentanyl mostly comes on patches.
"It's for constant debilitating pain," said Terry Hurley, Dinglewood Pharmacy Pharmacist/Owner in Columbus.
Many times, it's for cancer treatment, but Dinglewood Pharmacy Owner Terry Hurley in Columbus says they're just now having to keep a close eye on it, because of fentanyl abuse.
"They're breaking it open and either shooting it or smoking it or getting it into their body another way. That's suicide," Hurley told us.
Just a gram of fentanyl – that's the size of a sugar packet - can kill thousands of people.
"You are seeing more overdoses throughout the nation on fentanyl," Muscogee County Criminal Investigations Lt. Steve Sikes said.
Muscogee County sheriff's investigators say they've found these patches during searches, and it's a growing problem nationwide - deadly too, when drug users are buying fentanyl without even knowing it.
"In a lot of places, people are actually selling it instead of heroin," Lt. Sikes said.
Fentanyl nearly destroyed self-proclaimed soccer mom Jonette Greenwell's life, but she was abusing doctor-prescribed fentanyl patches, not the street version. She got hooked on narcotic pain meds after back surgery. Her husband, a pharmacist, tried to help.
"He tried to take them away from me and we got into a fight and I stabbed him," recovering addict Greenwell said. "I like to call it the shiny trashcan. As long as everything looks good on the outside it doesn't matter about the garbage on the inside."
Another surgery and she was given the fentanyl patches.
" I called a rehab friend and he told me how to cut them up. He said 'Don't chew a whole one s it could kill you.' Heaven forbid I don't want to do that. So I cut it into fourths and just chew on it with the gel in it. When he would put on a new one I would rip it off and stick on an old one and just keep using that so he didn't know. It's like every blood vessel is alive. WHOOSH! Like when you climb up a roller coaster and all that adrenaline just...you're just alive," Greenwell added.
"I've heard of people chewing these pads. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of," pharmacist Hurley said.
After rehabs, overdoses, a coma, suicide attempt and now, several years later, Jonette Greenwell is sober and happy. It's a much different story for others because of a dangerous mix that includes fentanyl.
"It's (fentanyl) been found in percoset, xanax, oxycontin," Lt. Sikes told us.
But how is a pharmaceutical patch going from prescription to street-level powder? The answer is online shopping.
"It just came in a regular envelope, a letter, looked like it came from a business," dealer Sim said.
In school, this fentanyl drug dealer got great grades, had good parents and soon after graduation, he running a major drug operation - undetected.
"Money laying all over, every counter, all over the floor, every surface," Sim said.
He did it through what's called the "Dark Web" and it took him all of ten minutes to show us how to send pure Fentanyl and just about any other drug you can imagine right to our front door.
The dark web is a collection of websites that can hide your IP address, which is your computer's name tag on the internet. The global drug marketplaces use scrambled web addresses that constantly change.
We are not going to describe how to access the dark web, but once you're there, you can buy just about ANYTHING.
With the ingredients to make variety drugs from scratch and some high school chemistry under his belt, Sim built his home-grown empire, with fentanyl and conveniently.
While more lives are being lost to fentanyl, some get second chances. Overall, local pharmacists say the drug is very effective and certain people need it, but if fentanyl is not used the right way, Terry Hurley says you could be "dead as a hammer."
"If this thing will keep you out of pain for three days, and you take it all in 15 minutes, you're not going to be here long," Hurley said.
The potency and danger of fentanyl is prompting advocates to push for more and more availability of naloxone, to reverse overdoses.