It would take only 118 pounds of fentanyl to kill 25 million people.

That’s how much of the powerful opioid painkiller Nebraska State Trooper Sam Mortensen found in April when he stopped a truck marked “U.S. Mail” swerving onto the shoulder along Interstate 80.

Mortensen found 42 brick-shaped packages, weighing 54 kilograms, full of fentanyl. The drug is so potent that even a few grains can be lethal.

The truck’s two drivers were arrested, and Mortensen was honored by President Trump.

American deaths linked to fentanyl grew more than 50 percent to 29,406 last year, from 19,413 in 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Relatively easy to manufacture, the drug is turning up more on the streets as dealers strive to meet demand for opioids.

Fentanyl is ever-evolving as suppliers try to avoid detection and still boost the potency of the drug using what are called analogues – essentially chemical cousins.

“There’s never been a drug like fentanyl before,” said Josh Bloom, senior research director at the American Council on Science and Health. “For street drugs, this absolutely destroys anything else in terms of lethality and danger.”

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, with which it is often mixed. Law enforcement officers and first responders have been warned of fentanyl’s danger; some have fallen seriously ill after getting it on their skin or clothing.

The fatal potential of even glancing contact with fentanyl is why national security experts are alarmed at the prospect of it being used to sow terror. The drug is “a significant threat to national security,” Michael Morell, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote last year. “It is a weapon of mass destruction.”

The use of fentanyl as a weapon isn’t new. In 2002, 50 rebels held more than 800 hostages in a theater in Moscow, demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. After a few days, Russian forces used a gas, reported to be fentanyl, to incapacitate the attackers, though more than 100 hostages were also killed.


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