Can fentanyl cause death or kill you?
Illicit use of Fentanyl
In the dog-eat-dog world of opiate addiction and drug commerce, maximizing profits is the name of the game, and death by overdose is simply collateral damage. The logic of the trade is simple: if there’s a market for heroin, and if there’s a substance that resembles heroin but costs less, then make the substitution, regardless of the buyer’s safety.
Fentanyl is a drug that is around 80 times as potent as morphine. Heroin, when injected, is 2 to 3 times as potent as morphine, making fentanyl about 25 to 40 times as powerful as heroin. In the illicit drug trade, this makes Fentanyl an ideal candidate: simply buy the vastly less expensive drug and add the appropriate amount of neutral (cheap) filler and put it out on the streets as heroin.
Fentanyl Deaths On the Rise
The result of this tactic has been a predictable rise in overdoses, as noted in a recent Drug Enforcement Agency alert. According to DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, “Drug incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate”. She went on to say that Fentanyl on the street poses “a significant threat to public health and safety”.
Matching the trend of increasing emergency room admissions and deaths by overdose, there has been an increase nationwide in the percentage of police drug seizures that tested positive for Fentanyl. The drug mainly comes from pharmaceutical supplies that are diverted by theft, but it can also be synthesized in a lab. Following a previous epidemic of Fentanyl overdoses between 2005 and 2007 in which more than 1000 people died, the DEA traced the drug to a facility in Mexico, which was subsequently shut down.
A brief background on Fentanyl
Fentanyl was first synthesized in Belgium in the early 1950s and introduced in the 60s as an intravenous anesthetic for use during surgery. It was later marketed in skin patches and lollipops for relief from severe or chronic pain. In the 70s, it was introduced as a heroin substitute on the street. In 1979, an underground chemist developed an analog to Fentanyl that was sold on the streets as China White and killed at least 100 people.
In 1985, a UCLA study identified more than 10 variants of the drug, some with even higher potency than the original. Since then, Fentanyl availability and abuse has spiked and then waned periodically as authorities play a game of Whack-a-Mole with manufacturers and criminal gangs involved in the distribution of the drug. Fentanyl also is one of the top 10 drugs abused by medical professionals.
The new opiate addicts
Fentanyl is part of the larger, more pervasive problem of opiate addiction in the United States. The traditional demographic for heroin addiction has been the urban poor, but this has shifted radically in the last ten years. The new demographic includes an entire subset that generally has not followed the standard path to addiction (experimentation on a recreational basis, followed by eventual dependency).
- People taking Fentanyl for pain relief
- White, middle class drug users
Instead of typical addiction, this first subset found themselves addicted after exposure to medication prescribed for pain. As tolerance for a drug grows, more is required, and repeated use at higher doses makes it increasingly difficult to stop. Many people who found themselves addicted to prescription pain medication then turned to heroin because is cheaper.
The other main component of the new opiate addict demographic comprises teens and young adults, mainly white and middle class, who also use prescription pain killers as the gateway drug to street heroin.
Addiction is addiction
Once established, addiction can extremely difficult to overcome. Addicts who do succeed at getting through withdrawal by themselves generally relapse in a short time, only to find themselves back where they started or worse. Treatment is available in a variety of forms. The life of an addict often becomes entirely centered around acquiring and using the drug in question, compromising all other aspects of experience: relationships, health, professional and recreational pursuits, and often legal status.
However, there is hope! Recovery through treatment can restore these life qualities and help the addict find a manner of living that is free from all mind-altering substances. If you or a loved one is having trouble with Fentanyl, reach out for help. You are not alone.
Photo credit: Daily Med