Initial reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have revealed that drug overdose deaths were at an all-time high in 2017. An estimated 72,000 deaths were attributed to drug overdoses last year—a figure that increased by over six percent from 2016.
The steady and alarming increase in drug overdoses is likely connected to the increasing and widespread use of fentanyl, a potent narcotic analgesic that is 50-100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl use has risen dramatically in recent years, and has made national headlines in connection to the deaths of celebrities such as Prince and Tom Petty.
In the CDC report, 30,000 overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids—a group that includes fentanyl. The overall statistic, including all forms of drugs, equates to 200 drug overdose deaths per day in the United States.
Across the country, fentanyl overdoses have killed thousands. As the opioid epidemic continues to rage, synthetic opioids have added another layer to an already complex crisis.
Fentanyl was initially developed for patients with severe chronic pain due to cancer, post-surgical pain, or other illness. It can be legally prescribed and administered to patients in the form of a patch, injection, or lozenge, though non-pharmaceutical versions of the drug are often sold as a powder, and can be mixed with or substituted for heroin.
Non-pharmaceutical fentanyl has been known to be laced with other drugs, including cocaine. This has posed a significant and increased risk, as many who are using cocaine, for example, have no idea that the cocaine has been laced with fentanyl. The results have been deadly; in Connecticut alone the number of deaths involving fentanyl and cocaine increased by 420 percent in the past three years.
The drug takes effect quickly when ingested, and causes symptoms similar to those produced by heroin, including drowsiness and euphoria. Intended as a painkiller, the drug, when one develops a tolerance or addiction, is associated with feelings of emotional “numbness.”
Rural states and big cities alike have experienced the harsh effects of the fentanyl crisis. In the latest report, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana each had large increases in the number of overdoses from 2016-2017. Massachusetts experienced a decrease this year—a possible sign of hope from an otherwise grim report.
When did US residents begin to abuse fentanyl?
Since its invention in the 1960s, fentanyl has gone through many phases, though many began to abuse the drug in the early 2000s.
The fentanyl crisis has surged with analogues such as carfentanil—intended as an elephant tranquilizer—killing people in doses “smaller than a snowflake.”
Carfentanil still poses an enormous risk to the public, boasting a potency 10,000 times stronger than morphine—even deadlier than fentanyl alone.
With so many deaths occurring from drugs laced with deadly fentanyl and fentanyl on its own, it is clear that continued measures for prevention, education, and treatment must be taken.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than 2 million Americans suffer from an opioid use disorder. As prescriptions continue to be written, more and more individuals will become addicted, with roughly 21 to 29 percent of individuals misusing prescribed opioids.
That 21 to 29 percent further divides into an estimated 4 to 6 percent that will transition to heroin use.
Making addiction treatment available and tailored to the individual is of the utmost importance in facing this crisis. Recovery from opioid addiction is possible—but not without the proper treatment and medical intervention.
As stated by Surgeon General Dr. Viviek Murthy, “Addressing the addiction crisis in America will require seeing addiction as a chronic illness, not as a moral failing.”
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