America’s war to end the opioid crisis has a new, powerful enemy. It is the synthetic opioid, fentanyl. The Peninsula Press at Stanford reports that because fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. As a result, most doctors prescribe it by the microgram — a thousandth of a milligram. Since 2013, fentanyl overdose deaths have increased significantly.
Shipped from China to the U.S., the prescription drug found its way to the East Coast in its early years on the streets. In recent years, fentanyl has moved to the West, often disguised within other drugs. Many people are overdosing because they have no idea that fentanyl has been added to whatever other drug they are misusing.
In California, overdose deaths related to fentanyl are rising just as fast as those for other opioids. As the nation works on ways to curb the opioid epidemic, fentanyl has experts worrying that a new surge in overdose deaths is on its way.
The Rising Dangers of Fentanyl
Today, many people may not know what fentanyl is or how dangerous it can be, let alone that it is used to spike other drugs obtained illegally. That is directly contributing to the rise in fentanyl overdose deaths.
Based on data from the National Vital Systems Statistics, an article in Clinical Psychiatry News states that “Fentanyl was the most involved drug in overdose deaths for six of the country’s 10 public health regions in 2017, with a clear pattern of decreasing use from East to West.”
According to the article, the highest death rate — 22.5 people per 100,000 — occurred in the New England Region. The lowest rate — 1.5 people per 100,000 — encompassed two regions covering Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada.
But California is now turning researchers’ East-to-West-Coast pattern on its head. California is experiencing more deaths due to fentanyl-related overdoses. This has caused experts to suspect that fentanyl is switching the pattern much as methamphetamine did. In meth’s case, death rates declined from West to the East. From 2014 to 2019, fentanyl-related deaths rose to 1,649 people in California. In L.A. County, 15 people died from fentanyl overdoses in 2015. In 2018, 202 people died as a result of fentanyl, according to the California Department of Public Health. Statewide fentanyl overdose deaths jumped 614 percent to 743 in 2018.
Not only is fentanyl extremely dangerous at even a small amount, but it is cheap and easy to manufacture. People with substance use disorder in California say smaller amounts can be enough to get the desired high, plus it can be bought for the fraction of the price of heroin. While stronger than any pill or drug that came before, fentanyl cannot be detected on regular drug test strips. That’s yet one more reason drug misusers are taking the risk to use fentanyl.
As if fentanyl weren’t dangerous enough by itself, trying to steer clear of it can be almost impossible. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, fentanyl is often mixed in or created into counterfeit pills that look like prescription pills and other opioids. Fentanyl is known to be mixed in with heroin, cocaine, MDMA and many other drugs. This is creating a profound overdose risk for those who misuse — or even only occasionally use — such drugs.
Preventing Fentanyl Overdose Deaths
Since 2014, the California Department of Public Health has been working with the community to prevent opioid overdoses, including preventing fentanyl from hitting the streets. The department issued these nine SOS statewide strategies that could help states struggling with the opioid crisis at any level:
- Strengthen statewide collaboration
- Promote safe prescribing
- Build community capacity
- Expand medication assisted treatment (MAT)
- Increase access to Naloxone
- Reduce access to and negative consequences of illicit drugs
- Address priority populations in high-risk settings
- Promote public education and awareness
- Translate data into actionable information
According to the San Jose Mercury News, two new websites — ManagePainSafely.org and ManageAddiction.org — allow people to learn and find resources including a Substance Abuse Services Helpline to assist those in need. Many of these preventative measures can be applied to other states across the country. Increasing awareness is easily something one can do at home and with those who are unaware of the situation.
Now with COVID-19 causing drug overdoses to increase across the country rapidly, it is also important to realize what the federal and state governments are doing to help prevent any further exposure. Increasing access to Naloxone and expanding Medication Assisted Treatment are just a few things governments can do to help prevent fentanyl overdoses.
Fentanyl is linked to increasing overdose deaths throughout the country. Cheap, profitable and hidden, fentanyl has turned up on the West Coast after spending years on the East Coast, killing many unsuspecting people. However, there are many ways to prevent fentanyl overdoses.
The California Department of Public Health issued several guidelines to stop this deadly drug from causing any more overdoses. Anywhere from promoting public education and awareness to increasing access to Naloxone — all states can follow these guidelines to stop the spread of addictive and dangerous opioids such as fentanyl.