Five or six times a day, a man from Texas injects a dose of carefully measured fentanyl. He does it when he wakes up and before he goes to work, and sometimes on breaks. It makes him drowsy, but he says people can’t usually tell he just used.
He gets his supply the way other people buy books and Bluetooth speakers: He orders it online, then waits for it to come in the U.S. mail. (I was connected to this man through a researcher on the condition of anonymity, out of concern he would be jailed if discovered.)
Researchers say the internet is a surprisingly common method of obtaining fentanyl, an opioid that is now responsible for more overdose deaths than heroin or prescription painkillers. Far from the shady, street-corner deals of popular imagination, more and more drug buys are taking place online, often with the help of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies for added anonymity.
Recently, a group of investigators with the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations Googled “buy fentanyl online” on the open internet, then homed in on the six sites that were most responsive to their requests. An investigator on the committee, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the findings, said these represent a tiny fraction of the hundreds of fentanyl-selling sites on the web.
The subcommittee identified more than 500 sales, totaling $230,000, that involved the six online sellers. The greatest number of purchases came from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
The subcommittee also identified seven people who died from fentanyl overdoses after sending money and receiving packages from one of the six online sellers, and it found 18 people who were arrested for drug-related offenses after making purchases through them. Here’s how it describes one of these deaths in its report:
One such individual was a 49-year-old Ohioan who sent roughly $2,500 to an online seller over the course of 10 months—from May 2016 to February 2017. Over that time period, he received 15 packages through the Postal Service on dates that closely corresponded to payments he made to an online seller. He died in early 2017 from “acute fentanyl intoxication.” He had received a package from an online seller just 30 days before his death.
According to the report, most of this fentanyl originates in China. China has cracked down on fentanyl and some of its subtypes, or analogues, but the online dealers often tweak the formulas of their drugs slightly to stay ahead of bans. For example, when China announced it would ban one fentanyl product, called U-47700, on July 1, one fentanyl dealer advertised a “hot sale” of the product through June. “All must go till 1 of July,” the “special offer” read, according to the report.