Fentanyl is a drug that is increasingly receiving media attention for its role in the opioid crisis. While fentanyl does have a significant medical use as a painkiller, it is also used recreationally in ways that prove to be addictive and dangerous. As a result, the U.S. lists fentanyl as a controlled substance.
Therefore, you can face significant legal trouble if you are caught with fentanyl without a prescription for the drug. In California, depending on the amount of the drug in your possession, you can be charged with simple possession or with possession with an intent to sell fentanyl. Even if you have a prescription, you can still find yourself in a precarious legal situation where you have to prove that you had a reason to have fentanyl or face a serious criminal conviction.
William S. Kroger, a drug defense attorney in Los Angeles, can help you beat accusations of a drug crime involving fentanyl.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is one of the many drugs in the opioid family. In the medical community, it is usually sold and used in liquid form as a painkiller and is often administered through injection. However, there are also nasal sprays, adhesive patches, and pills that administer fentanyl in these controlled settings. In non-medical situations, though, fentanyl is typically a white or light brown powder with the consistency of flour.
Fentanyl was first synthesized by chemists in 1960 and was approved for medical use in the United States as a pain medication in 1968. It has been so effective as a pain medication that the World Health Organization (WHO) included the adhesive patch form of fentanyl on its list of the most essential medicines for a developing health system to have in 2017.
However, fentanyl is very addictive and is also frequently used recreationally by people who have been addicted to the drug, often from over-prescription for a prior injury. To try reining in the recreational use of fentanyl, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) added the drug to Schedule II of the Controlled Substance Act, labeling fentanyl as a highly dangerous and addictive drug, though with some medically accepted uses.
Effects of Fentanyl
In a medical setting, fentanyl is used as a medication to treat “breakthrough” pain – pain that happens to seriously ill patients, in spite of an existing and continuous pain medication. Typical patients of fentanyl, therefore, are adults who are undergoing serious and painful treatments for medical conditions like cancer, burn wounds, or nerve damage.
Fentanyl is especially powerful in these situations because it can be administered in a variety of ways by doctors and nurses – including injection, lozenge, or a pill that dissolves in a patient's mouth – and is far more potent than even morphine. Its pain-relieving effects are also quick to kick in, with many forms of administration taking effect in the span of only a couple of minutes.
The reason for fentanyl's potency is how it chemically alters how the brain receives pain signals from the rest of the body's nervous system. The more a patient uses fentanyl, though, the less a regular dose reduces their pain – patients who take fentanyl for prolonged periods of time develop a tolerance of the drug, forcing them to take more of it to get the same impact as they used to get.
Unfortunately, this effect of fentanyl is precisely why it has become such a widely used recreational drug: people who deal with chronic pain quickly become reliant on fentanyl, rather than on a less potent, but also less addictive, pain reliever.
For these users, the effects of fentanyl are similar to heroin, though without the euphoric rush that opens a heroin high. Instead, fentanyl users are looking for the sedated drop off period that fentanyl creates, which centers on feelings of:
- Mental haze
- Slowed breathing
- A slower heart rate.
These effects begin minutes after the drug is ingested, and lasts for around an hour.
While fentanyl is similar to heroin in the effects that it has on users, fentanyl is far more potent of a drug – it often comes in concentrations that are more than 50 times more powerful than a similar dose of heroin.
The high potency of fentanyl has proven to be one of its most dangerous aspects: when it is sold, it is frequently mixed with and sold as the less potent but more expensive heroin. Unsuspecting users who think they are taking a dose of heroin, therefore, put themselves at serious risk by ingesting a far more potent drug than they are expecting. Even users who have developed a high tolerance for heroin are at risk of an overdose if they take a similar amount of fentanyl. Perhaps worse, recreational fentanyl is often made in illegal labs and sold in tablet forms that are designed to mimic other pills, like OxyContin and Xanax. These pills substitute fentanyl for oxycodone or other pain relievers but are designed to look identical. When a shipment of drugs that substitutes fentanyl for other painkillers reaches a city or region, it can trigger a sudden and staggering increase in overdoses that can cripple hospitals in the area.
Overdoses of fentanyl are dangerous because the drug impacts brain signals that deal with both pain receptors as well as breathing rate. High doses of fentanyl, therefore, can cause a user to stop breathing, which is often fatal.
In addition to its sedating feeling, fentanyl also has a wide range of adverse side effects that more than one in ten users experience. These include:
- Dry mouth
- Muscle weakness
- Excessive sweating.
How is Fentanyl Used?
Fentanyl comes in a wide variety of forms and can be administered in a variety of ways. This versatility is one of its primary strengths in the medical field, as it allows doctors to get crucial pain-relieving medicine to patients who need it. However, this also means that recreational fentanyl takes on numerous forms as well.
- Pills. Many people take recreational fentanyl in pill form. These pills often mimic other pain relievers to pass the scrutiny of law enforcement.
- Injection. Recreational fentanyl users can also freebase the drug by heating it. They then use a needle and syringe to inject it straight into their bloodstream. This administration method is popular because it lets the drug hit the quickest.
- Patches. Fentanyl patches can be applied to the skin like a Band-Aid, allowing the drug to seep through the skin slowly. Because this is the slowest form of drug administration, it is not widely used in the recreational context.
- Powder. Recreational fentanyl is frequently sold in powder form for freebasing and injection or for snorting.
Fentanyl is a Controlled Substance
Because it quickly promotes a tolerance and is very addictive, but still has a widely-accepted use in the medical community, fentanyl is listed as a Schedule II drug in the Controlled Substances Act. This makes it illegal to possess without a validly-obtained prescription from a licensed medical professional.
Possessing fentanyl in California is illegal, and is punishable under California Health and Safety Code 11350. This statute prohibits the possession of a host of drugs, including fentanyl.
While most cases of fentanyl possession is a misdemeanor crime that comes with up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $20,000, those who have certain criminal backgrounds will face felony-level charges. These felony charges come with between two and four years in jail and a $20,000 fine.
Eligible backgrounds for these felony offenses of fentanyl possession include:
- Sex crimes requiring registration on a sex offender list
- Extremely violent crimes like murder or rape
Recent legislative attempts – most recently in April 2018 – to drastically increase the penalties for fentanyl possession have not been successful.
Misdemeanor charges for fentanyl possession, though, can be settled with the completion of a drug diversion program.
Possession of High Quantities of Fentanyl
The penalties that you can face for fentanyl possession, however, increase if you were found with large amounts of the drug, as law enforcement sees these high amounts as evidence that you were intending to sell fentanyl. California Health and Safety Code 11351 makes it illegal to possess fentanyl with an intent to sell and punishes convictions under California Penal Code 1170, which carries jail terms of between 16 months and three years.
Because possession with an intent to sell fentanyl is not a crime that revolves around your personal drug use, diversion programs are not an option.
Los Angeles Drug Defense Attorney William S. Kroger
Misdemeanor or felony, a criminal charge for possession of fentanyl is not a trivial thing. You need skilled defense to overcome the allegations if you want to avoid serious penalties and the social stigma of having a drug conviction in your past – a stigma that can impact your ability to get or keep a job.
William S. Kroger can help. Reach out to his Los Angeles law office by calling him at (323) 655-5700 or by contacting him online.