The opioid and heroin epidemic sweeping the nation is an enduring tragedy with few silver linings. It has taken many thousands of young lives and left countless families struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one. The fact that we have forgotten how to prevent overdose deaths — or at least have made a conscious decision to stop interfering with them — is just as painful as the overdose itself.
In the past six years, the number of drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl has increased by about 114 percent per year, from 1,905 deaths in 2013 to 5,544 deaths in 2017. The 2016 drug overdose death rate (27.9 per 100,000) was nearly twice 1999 (14.1 per 100,000).
The five drugs involved most often in prescription opioid overdose deaths are methadone, oxycodone; hydrocodone; alprazolam, and morphine. And according to UCDavis’ Center for Healthcare Policy and Research.
What exactly is fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that was initially manufactured as a painkiller and anesthetic. It works by binding to the body’s opioid receptors. These are the same receptors targeted by heroin and morphine, but fentanyl binds more strongly than any of them—and faster too.
This causes an immediate reaction in brain dopamine levels, which is what produces the “high” associated with opioids. Fentanyl also slows down breathing considerably when it reaches the respiratory system, which means that it’s very easy to stop breathing altogether if too much is taken.
This has caused many overdose deaths because people take fentanyl, thinking they’re taking heroin, which usually doesn’t contain fentanyl.
Fentanyl is related to heroin
Fentanyl is related to heroin in very much the same way that methamphetamine is related to amphetamine. Just as meth speeds up your brain, so does fentanyl. And just as you would expect with any drug, people often try to get “higher” by taking more of it.
When fentanyl was manufactured for medical use, the dosage was much more controlled because dosages are dangerous. This means that people can easily overdose if they try to “step up” their usual heroin high by taking fentanyl without realizing it’s much more potent than heroin.
Fentanyl has immediate effects
Fentanyl is highly fast-acting, which means that slowing your breathing isn’t always easy. The effects hit you hard and fast, so if you mix fentanyl with alcohol or other drugs that slow your respiratory system down, it’s very easy to stop breathing altogether—and die.
Other opioids have a longer “tail,” which means that the high lasts longer, and it takes longer for the breath to get slowed down. Fentanyl is also very easy to overdose on because it’s so much stronger than other opioids, which means that even if you take your regular dose of heroin, the fentanyl in the heroin can overpower you and cause an overdose. This has been called “the hot shot.”
Fentanyl has medical uses
Fentanyl was first synthesized in Belgium in the late 1950s. It was initially used as a painkiller and anesthetic, but fentanyl has been increasingly prescribed for end-of-life pain management because it works very well.
That means that the demand for illicitly produced fentanyl had risen since 2007 when pharmaceutical companies began marketing their products to doctors outside of the U.S. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is extremely expensive. However, so illicitly produced fentanyl is now sold as a cutting agent for heroin.
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This means that it’s mixed with the heroin often without the dealers realizing what they’re doing. It used to be that if someone wanted heroin, they knew where to look for it and how to identify it themselves—but now they are taking fentanyl without understanding it, which can lead to overdoses.
Fentanyl is potent than morphine
Fentanyl is synthesized in a lab and sold to unsuspecting drug users who believe they’re purchasing heroin. Fentanyl can be up to 80 times as strong as morphine, and just .02 mg of fentanyl is enough to kill you.
Fentanyl is added to heroin because it enhances the high and provides dealers with more profits since they can buy less product but sell it at the same price as regular heroin. Unfortunately, this means that many users don’t realize what is in the heroin they are consuming until it’s too late.
In the past six years, deaths from fentanyl have increased 500 percent, and overdose-related hospital visits have quadrupled.
There is a massive demand for opioids, both legal and illegal.
People who are addicted to prescription pain medications make up a large portion of that demand. That is where fentanyl enters the picture. Since it has been proven that people will seek out opioids no matter what, due to increased tolerance and dependence, fentanyl is used as a cheaper alternative for drug addicts trying to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
As an increasingly popular drug, new methods for fentanyl usage are being discovered and shared on the Internet every day. The most common way of ingesting opioids is by injecting them with a syringe. However, fentanyl is an exception. Fentanyl is so powerful that if a user injects it, their dosage could easily be too high and cause an overdose.
The rise in the popularity of fentanyl use has also led to an emerging market for counterfeit opioids. These pills are made with other drugs mixed in, which can cause users to overdose unknowingly. The most common contaminant is the powerful synthetic opioid.
Fentanyl has become cheaper to produce
Fentanyl has become cheaper to produce because it can be created in less advanced countries due to its legal status. It also gives people the high that they desire for a much lower price than other opioids.
Fentanyl is very addictive.
Further studies should be conducted to determine why fentanyl has become so popular. The mandatory prescription drug monitoring programs required in all fifty states can help control the distribution of opioids by identifying patients who are potentially abusing their medication and preventing them from getting more prescriptions. But if someone is determined enough to get their hands on these medications illegally, the chances are that they will.
People who are addicted to prescription pain medications make up a large portion of that demand for opioids.