Drug-overdose deaths in the United States in 2021 topped 100,000, a record high fuelled by the spread of illicit forms of fentanyl.

More than 107,000 people died from drug overdoses last year, preliminary Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data showed, roughly a 15% increase from 2020. The proliferation of the potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl has been compounded by the destabilising effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on users and people in recovery, according to health authorities and treatment providers.

The U.S. has recorded more than one million overdose deaths since 2000, and more than half of those came in the past seven years.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality-statistics branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, regarding fentanyl’s impact on the numbers.

The CDC has counted about 103,600 overdoses for 2021, but believes the number is several thousand higher due to suspected overdoses that haven’t yet been confirmed by local death investigators.

Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin. Illicit forms of the drug are made in clandestine labs in Mexico according to U.S. law-enforcement authorities. These cartel-made drugs then pour across the U.S. border.

The drug is attractive to cartels because it is synthetic, made from easily sourced chemicals. U.S. deaths linked to heroin have been declining as fentanyl’s profile rises. But deaths linked to synthetic opioids, largely made up by fentanyl, climbed 23% last year to about 71,200 while representing about two-thirds of all drug deaths, preliminary CDC numbers show.

The agency also noted rising fatalities linked to two stimulants—methamphetamines and cocaine—which people often use with fentanyl. 

Fentanyl came to global prominence in the death of George Floyd who had the drug in his system when he died.