The Synthetic Heroin in 'Iron Fist' Is Disturbingly Realistic

Iron Fist/Marvel

The central issue in episode five of Marvel’s problematic new Netflix series, Iron Fist, is uncomfortably real. In “Under Leaf Pluck Lotus,” Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is up against The Fist and its latest society-crushing business venture, which is a mirror image of a public health issue that’s gripping America today.

Iron Fist spoilers ahead.

The episode opens with a series of attractive women seductively opening briefcases inside sketchy buildings: They’re peddling synthetic heroin, a drug that boasts “faster absorption,” a “slower metabolic rate,” and packaging in “pills, powder, patch, or drops.” It’s untraceable, making it ideal for maintaining security. To the skeptical businessmen of The Hand, the drug seems too good to be true. Real-world drug lords, however, would likely respond with a shrug — until they hear about the drug’s tantalizing twist.

The opioid crisis currently crippling America — it killed 30,000 people in 2015, and that number seems to be growing — is largely the result of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, oxycodone, and morphine, which belong to the same chemical family as heroin. While opium poppy seeds are traditionally used to make heroin and other opioids, advances in chemistry have allowed scientists to isolate the compound that actually produces the high and synthesize unnatural versions of it in laboratories, where its potency can be increased even further through chemical modification. This is the general process used to create super-opioids like W-18 and fentanyl, and judging by the consistent influx of new, related opioids on the drug market — especially in the sales of counterfeit pills — new versions are not that difficult to make.

The synthetic heroin in 'Iron Fist' contains the liver enzyme CP450, which does not actually have this effect in real life.

Iron Fist/Marvel

The unnamed drug in Iron Fist has the most similarities with fentanyl, the drug that’s thought to have been mixed in with Prince’s counterfeit opioids, leading to his death. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid thought to be 80 times stronger than morphine and hundreds of times more potent than heroin; because it’s so strong, people who have not built up a tolerance to it can die immediately after taking even a small dose. It’s synthesized legally in patch form as a treatment of last resort for people suffering from unbearable, chronic pain (usually as the result of a terminal illness), and it’s tightly controlled by strict legislation. Nevertheless, the drug leaks into the black market through several avenues: Nurses have been caught selling hospital stocks of fentanyl on the street, and opioid addicts have been known to rummage through garbage bins to find used fentanyl patches they attempt to repurpose. In Canada, this latter issue has led to a fentanyl patch return program, which prevents the patches from ending up in the trash.

The one characteristic separating Iron Fist’s synthetic heroin from the opioids of the real world is the one that would change the drug landscape altogether: a “CP450 liver enzyme inhibitor” that “prevents the human body from ever building a tolerance to it.” Tolerance is what leads addicts to seek newer and stronger drugs; if drug manufacturers can eliminate it without reducing their product’s addictive qualities, they can effectively induce lifelong dependence in their users.

Fortunately, that characteristic of the drug very much remains a fiction, and scientists have recently made breakthroughs in discovering the opposite — an opioid that isn’t addictive. Pursuing research in this avenue could prove to be an effective one for dealing with the opioid crisis — one that doesn’t require a problematic hero that dabbles in the drugs themselves.