The United States has been battling a devastating opioid epidemic for years now, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year. A major contributor to this crisis is the powerful synthetic opioid known as fentanyl. This dangerous substance, often mixed with other drugs, significantly increases the risk of overdose and death. This article takes a closer look at the effects of fentanyl on the opioid epidemic in the U.S.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 50-100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. It was developed for medical use in 1960, primarily as an anesthetic and in pain management for cancer patients. However, its potency and rapid action have led to its illegal manufacture and distribution, often being mixed with or falsely sold as heroin and other substances.
The increased prevalence of fentanyl on the streets has been linked to a dramatic spike in the number of opioid overdose deaths in the United States in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that from 2014 to 2019, drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased by more than 1,000% (source).
Rampant Counterfeit Pills and Cutting Agents
One of the primary methods through which fentanyl has infiltrated the drug market is the distribution of counterfeit prescription pills, particularly those designed to resemble popular opioid drugs such as oxycodone or hydrocodone. These counterfeit pills are manufactured with varying quantities of fentanyl, often well beyond the safe therapeutic dose for a legitimate medical prescription. Moreover, many counterfeit pills also contain other dangerous substances or are entirely devoid of medical ingredients.
Unsuspecting users may believe they are taking a genuine prescription drug but consume fentanyl instead, putting them at a significantly higher risk for overdose. A 26-fold increase in fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been reported from 2018 to 2020(source).
Additionally, fentanyl is often used as a cutting agent for other drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine, leading users to ingest a hazardous opioid without even realizing it. This practice has resulted in users unintentionally being exposed to fatal overdoses of fentanyl.
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Fentanyl and the Overdose Epidemic in the U.S.
The rapid proliferation of fentanyl and its deadly consequences can be observed in the alarming data related to the opioid epidemic in the U.S. Synthetic opioids, excluding methadone, with fentanyl being the most prevalent of these, have now become the most common drug category involved in overdose deaths in the nation. According to the CDC’s 2019 data, synthetic opioids were involved in 36,359 of the 70,630 drug overdose deaths, accounting for approximately 51% of the total deaths (source).
The widespread distribution of fentanyl comes with a high economic cost. A study published in the journal Medical Care estimated that the total societal cost of the opioid crisis (including abuse, dependence, and overdose) was $95 billion in 2016. A significant amount of this figure was attributed to the surging presence of potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl (source).
Combating the Fentanyl Problem
Both the government and non-governmental organizations are working to control the devastating impact of fentanyl on the opioid epidemic. Some of the measures being undertaken include:
- Interdiction and International cooperation – The distribution of illicitly manufactured fentanyl is largely controlled by international drug trafficking organizations, primarily from China and Mexico. The U.S. government, in collaboration with international partners, has been working to crack down on illegal fentanyl production and trafficking. In 2018, China agreed to ban the production and sale of fentanyl and its analogs, which has resulted in a significant decline in fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the U.S. (source).
- Increased access to overdose-reversing medications – One way to combat the rising tide of overdoses is to increase the availability of naloxone, a drug that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Efforts are being made on local, state, and federal levels to equip first responders, community organizations, and individuals with naloxone kits.
- Opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment and prevention – Providing better access to evidence-based treatment services and initiating public awareness campaigns to prevent opioid use disorder are critical to reducing the opioid epidemic’s impact, including fentanyl’s dangerous effects.
The presence of fentanyl in the United States has had severe and lasting effects on the opioid epidemic. Its potency and widespread distribution amplify the risks associated with opioid use, adding more urgency to the need to control the spread of these dangerous drugs. Governmental and non-governmental organizations must continue to collaborate in order to tackle the issue of fentanyl production, distribution, and misuse successfully. This includes both prevention and treatment efforts, as well as the expansion of access to life-saving overdose reversal medications. With the right strategies in place, it is possible to reduce the deadly role of fentanyl in the opioid epidemic.