Natasha Butler had never heard of fentanyl until a doctor told her that a single pill had pushed her eldest son to the brink of death – and he wasn’t coming back. “The doctor said fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. I know morphine is really, really powerful. I’m trying to understand. All that in one pill? How did Jerome get that pill?” she asked, her voice dropping to a whisper as the tears came. “Jerome was on a respirator and he was pretty much unresponsive. The doctor told me all his organs had shut down. His brain was swelling, putting pressure on to the spine. They said if he makes it he’ll be a vegetable.”
The last picture of Jerome shows him propped immobile in a hospital bed, eyes closed, sustained only by a clutch of tubes and wires. Natasha took the near impossible decision to let him die.
“I had to remove him from life support. That’s the hardest thing to ever do. I had him at 15 so we grew together. He was 28 when he died,” she said. “I had to let him die but after that I needed some answers. What is fentanyl and how did he get it?”
That was a question asked across Sacramento after Jerome and 52 other people in and around California’s capital overdosed on the extremely powerful synthetic opioid, usually only used by hospitals to treat patients in the later stages of cancer, over a few days in late March and early April 2016. Twelve died.
Less than a month later, this mysterious drug – largely unheard of by most Americans – killed the musician Prince and burst on to the national consciousness. Fentanyl, it turned out, was the latest and most disturbing twist in the epidemic of opioid addiction that has crept across the United States over the past two decades, claiming close to 200,000 lives. But Prince, like almost all fentanyl’s victims, probably never even knew he was taking the drug.