Prince died with ‘exceedingly high’ levels of a drug that’s 30 times stronger than heroin in his system, according to a new report

Prince performs onstage at the 2006 BET Awards.

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Prince performs onstage at the 2006 BET Awards.
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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Fentanyl, a drug that’s 30 times stronger than heroin and claimed the lives of more than 20,000 Americans last year, has been implicated in the deaths of celebrities including Prince and Tom Petty.

A new report from the Associated Press confirms the drug played a big role in Prince’s death. A toxicology report obtained by the AP reveals that Prince had “exceedingly high” levels of fentanyl in his system when he died in 2016.

Here’s what the drug is, and how it makes its way to the US from China.


Fentanyl can take many forms. Available legally with a prescription, the drug is often prescribed in patches or injected through an IV. On the street, it typically shows up in pills and may be disguised as another opioid painkiller like oxycodone.

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Ampule of fentanyl in solution
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Erowid Center

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Since 1999, overdose deaths involving opioid painkillers have quadrupled. In 2016, close to 64,000 Americans died from opioids. Roughly 20,100 of those deaths were from fentanyl alone.

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Business Insider / Samantha Lee

Fentanyl is increasingly showing up in counterfeit pills seized by authorities on the street. These pills, which were labeled hydrocodone, were recovered by authorities during a recent fentanyl investigation in Northern California.

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Reuters

Since fentanyl is so much more potent than other opioid painkillers, drug traffickers only need to pack their drugs with small amounts of it to provide users a powerful punch. But a tiny bit too much can be deadly.

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On the left, a lethal dose of heroin; on the right, a lethal dose of fentanyl.
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New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

Sources: Fusion, “Death by Fentanyl,” 2016; The Globe and Mail, “How Canada got addicted to fentanyl,” 2016


Five of the six online fentanyl vendors investigated in a new Senate report are based in China. The sellers sent hundreds of packages to more than 300 sources in the US by way of the US Postal Service (USPS).


Previous investigations have also implicated Mexico in the trade. Sometimes, the components for the drug come from China and are fashioned into large quantities of powder by traffickers in Mexico. Other times, the components appear to be shipped directly to the US and made into drugs inside the country.

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Drew Angerer/Getty

Traffickers pack up the powder in boxes disguised with harmless labels. In Southern California, authorities recently seized a group of boxes labeled as office supplies that were later found to be part of a drug manufacturing scheme. One of them contained a quarter-ton pill press — used to punch out pills — that had been labeled “hole puncher.”

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In Mexico, a version of the drug mixed with heroin is called “El Diablito,” or the little devil. “There’s almost nobody making pure heroin anymore, because el diablito is so much stronger,” one trafficker recently told a Fusion reporter as part of an investigation into the trade.

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Fusion/YouTube

Source: Fusion, “Death by Fentanyl,” 2016


That trafficker said he got the precursor chemicals from China and paid a Colombian chemist $50,000 to show him how to make fentanyl.

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YouTube/Fusion

Source: Fusion, “Death by Fentanyl,” 2016


The drugmakers change up the specific ingredients in the drugs so fast — and produce them in such massive quantities — that drug enforcement can’t keep up. Between 2013 and 2014, drug busts that turned up fentanyl rose by 426%.

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YouTube/Fusion

Source: STAT News, “Chinese labs modify deadly fentanyl to circumvent ban on sales to US,” 2016


The US Drug Enforcement Administration may not have adequately prepared for the surge. In a 2015 report on national drug threats, DEA officials stated that fentanyl was “unlikely to assume a significant portion of the opioid market.”

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YouTube/Fusion

Source: 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, DEA


It appears that prediction was incorrect. Instead of decreasing or flat-lining, the rate of drug overdose deaths from fentanyl increased 88% every year between 2013 and 2016, according to the latest CDC data.


“We now know the depth to which drug traffickers exploit our mail system to ship fentanyl and other synthetic drugs into the United States,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), an author on the recent Senate report, said in a statement. “The federal government can and must act to shore up our defenses against this deadly drug and help save lives.”