EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Mario thought about seeking help when his addiction to opioids “started messing up my life.”

And when two of his friends died of fentanyl overdoses recently, he knew he had to quit. What he didn’t know is that he, too, was consuming the potentially deadly synthetic substance. Not until he tested positive for it.

“I wasn’t aware I was using fentanyl,” the recovering addict told Border Report. “What’s happening is they’re cutting everything up, all the drugs that are coming across from Mexico. They’re all being cut with fentanyl so that (you) like them stronger.”

Like Mario, who asked that his real name not be used, many drug users in the U.S. have become unwitting consumers of a substance the Drug Enforcement Administration says is 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl figured in many of last year’s 93,000 opioid overdose deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

Drug Enforcement Administration officials three years ago began noticing the rise in fentanyl trafficking from Mexico as cartels there learned to manufacture the drug, using illegally imported chemicals from China. Since then, fentanyl seizures are up more than 500 percent in El Paso. And some of the drug originally destined for consumption on the East and West coasts is now staying on the border.

Cecilia Franco

“We began seeing clients who’d had contact with fentanyl about two years ago,” said Cecilia Franco, program coordinator and drug counselor at Aliviane Treatment Center in El Paso. “It began showing up in their heroin, so we started testing for it and educating our clients about the risks of consuming such dangerous substance.”

Federal agents say fentanyl is cheaper to mass-produce than many other illegal drugs, so the cartels are now exporting the substance to the United States and making billions of dollars in the process. They’re also jeopardizing communities. Fentanyl pills are deadly starting at 2-milligram doses, depending on your weight and general health. At least 40 percent of the fentanyl DEA is seizing crossed the border in 2 mg doses, and some contained as much as 5 mg.

Aliviane treats a lot of young adults like Mario, but it’s also beginning to see older people. That includes so-called successful professionals and members of the health industry.

“Addiction doesn’t discriminate. Anybody can develop an addiction,” Franco said.

‘Fake high’ of fentanyl unmasked  

Addicts are telling American drug counselors that fentanyl isn’t that great of a drug.

“Those who have used heroin for a long time say they like the sense of well-being that it brings them. With the fentanyl, they feel they’re passing out and they don’t like that,” Franco said. “Most people are not looking for the fentanyl, but that’s what the drug dealers are giving them in their drugs.”

Nowadays, even some marijuana is being laced with fentanyl here.

Other treatment center employees have been told by clients they end up vomiting and with severe aches after waking from the fentanyl stupor. A DEA fact sheet on fentanyl says the drug is known to bring the user temporary sedation and euphoria but also leads to nausea, urinary retention, and respiratory constriction.

Mario says he’s telling acquaintances to stay away from a drug that’s just too strong to handle and is not really what they’re looking for.

“People are used to ‘clean’ drugs. This drug is something that a little too much of it will kill you. It’s something to be scared of,” he said. The cartels “are the ones making money out of it and they don’t care what it’s doing to people.”

Franco said Aliviane provides a wide range of recovery services including medication. But she adds the best tool this community has to stem a potential fentanyl epidemic is education.

“It’s very important for the parents to have communication with their children. Once the parents are educated about the risks associated with taking opioids and any kind of substance people may offer their kids, that is the first step for them to pass on that knowledge,” she said.

Drug counselors believe the lacing of practically all street drugs with fentanyl is a quick-hit approach by the traffickers to get people hooked.

“They can even put fentanyl on marijuana. Those are the ways drug dealers are trying to entice more people, especially young people, to consume and sell their drugs,” Franco said. “We have a saying that government and service providers are fighting (addiction) with our bare hands against traffickers who have all the ammunition.”