Fentanyl in the Context of New Psychoactive Substances

"Since 2012, a total of 28 new fentanils have been identified on Europe’s drug market. This includes eight substances that were reported for the first time in 2016 and 10 during 2017. During this period, there has also been a large increase in seizures reported by customs at international borders and police at street-level (Figure 4) (see also ‘Reducing the risk of occupational exposure to fentanils’, page 11). While the picture differs widely across Europe, 23 countries have reported detections of one or more of these substances (Figure 5) (2). Reports to the EMCDDA of fatal poisonings have also increased substantially from some countries (EMCDDA, 2016a; EMCDDA, 2017a,b,c,d,e,f,g; EMCDDA, 2018a,b).

"It appears that most shipments of new fentanils coming into Europe originate from companies based in China. Production in illicit laboratories, including in Europe, has also been reported occasionally. Typically, production of fentanyl and other fentanils is relatively straightforward, which adds to the challenges in responding to these substances.

"Like other new substances, one of the reasons behind the increase in these fentanils is that they are not controlled under the United Nations drug control conventions. This means that in many countries they can be manufactured and traded relatively freely and openly — a situation which has been exploited by entrepreneurs and crime groups using companies based in China to make the substances. The fentanils are typically shipped to Europe by express mail services and courier services. From here, they are then sold as ‘legal’ replacements for illicit opioids on the surface web and on the darknet. Unknown to users, they are also sold as heroin or mixed with heroin and other illicit opioids. Occasionally they have also been used to make fake medicines and, less commonly, sold as cocaine (see ‘Fentanils in fake medicines and cocaine’, page 12).

"Fentanils have been found in a variety of physical and dosage forms in Europe. The most common form is powders, but they have also been detected in liquids and tablets. Depending on the circumstances, seizures of powders have ranged from milligram to kilogram quantities. They may be relatively pure, especially when seized coming into the European Union. They may also be mixed with one or more substances. In the latter case, these include commonly used cutting agents (such as mannitol, lactose and paracetamol), as well as heroin and other fentanils/opioids. To a much smaller degree, other drugs, such as cocaine and other stimulants, have also been detected in mixtures with fentanils in Europe. During 2016, more than 4.6 kg of powder containing fentanils was reported, while almost 4.5 litres of liquid and around 2 900 tablets were also reported. Less commonly, fentanils have also been found in blotters and plant material. In these cases, there may be no indication that they contain fentanils, which could pose a risk of poisoning to people who use them."


European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2018), Fentanils and synthetic cannabinoids: driving greater complexity into the drug situation. An update from the EU Early Warning System (June 2018), Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.