DOI: 10.1093/jat/bkad089 ISSN: 0146-4760

The Evolution of Fentanyl-Related Substances: Prevalence and Drug Concentrations in Postmortem Biological Specimens at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Department

Jocelyn Martinez, Jennifer Gonyea, M. Elizabeth Zaney, Joseph Kahl, Diane M Moore
  • Chemical Health and Safety
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis
  • Toxicology
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Analytical Chemistry


Since 2014, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Department (MDME) has observed a drastic increase in the number of fentanyl and fentanyl analog (fentanyl-related substances, FRS) fatalities since its introduction into the heroin and cocaine supply. Due to the prevalence of FRS in Miami-Dade County, the MDME toxicology laboratory began documenting each case in which fentanyl and/or a fentanyl analog was identified. Additional information monitored included demographics (age, race, and sex), other drugs identified, cause of death, and manner of death. From 2014 to 2022, the MDME toxicology laboratory analyzed a total of 1,989 cases that tested positive for FRS, of which 1,707 had detectable and/or quantifiable fentanyl concentrations in postmortem cases. The majority of the decedents were white males (62%), and the predominant age range was 25-34 years. The most prevalent manner of death was accident (93%) with the most common cause of death listed as acute combined drug toxicity of fentanyl in combination with other drugs (79%). Other drugs found in combination with fentanyl included heroin, cocaine (most prevalent), synthetic cathinones, and ethanol. Of all FRS cases, 9% (170 cases) involved fentanyl alone as a cause of death, while 2% (38 cases) included only fentanyl analogs. Fentanyl concentrations ranged from 1.0 to 1,646 ng/mL in peripheral blood, 1.2 to 449 ng/mL in central blood, 3.2 to 28 ng/mL in donor blood (obtained during tissue harvesting), 1.1 to 108 ng/mL in antemortem blood, 8.5 to 1130 ng/g in liver, and 2.0 to 471 ng/g in brain. Drug concentrations were also reported for an additional eight fentanyl analogs. Considering the prevalence, high potency, and constant evolution of FRS, it is important to continuously monitor trends and report drug concentrations in complex medical examiner casework in an effort to educate pathologists, law enforcement, and local governments.

More from our Archive