Since 2013, deaths in Cincinnati due to the use of fentanyl have risen 1000%.
That’s right. One thousand percent. And while Cincinnati is only one city, the story across the nation is broadly the same.
Fentanyl, also known as synthetic heroin, has been on the streets since the mid 1970s. But it has grown increasingly more common in recent years. Cheap to produce, fentanyl is indistinguishable from regular heroin, although it can be hundreds of times more potent. (It was originally invented as a very serious anesthetic compound and pain relieving drug. It remains the most widely-used synthetic opioid worldwide.)
Drug dealers and drug producers, looking to cut costs, began mixing the cheap synthetic fentanyl into their batches of “real” heroin. They then sell this corrupted product as if it were real heroin, because pure heroin commands higher prices.
Drug dealers pocket the savings, and drug addicts die by the thousands.
The use of illegally produced fentanyl for recreational purposes is extremely dangerous. In hospitals, fentanyl doses are tightly controlled and patients are monitored for adverse reactions.
In the streets of American’s depressed Midwestern cities, there is no such oversight.
Fentanyl powder has also been used to create counterfeit OxyContin tablets. Drug users take what they think are OxyContin pills, believing that they will be experiencing a familiar high they’ve felt many times before.
Many of them never come down from that high.
In 2016 alone, fentanyl killed more than 20,100 people. That was more than half of all opioid-related overdose deaths. And America’s fentanyl problem affects more than just the urban poor. Among fentanyl’s victims were some of America’s most cherished musicians, men like Prince and Tom Petty.
Prince died after taking fentanyl that had been disguised as a party drug called Watson 385, which was supposed to be a mix of hydrocodone and paracetamol. Instead the counterfeit pills that Prince took contained enough fentanyl to kill a horse.
Tom Petty overdosed accidentally after mixing medications that included fentanyl, acetyl fentanyl, and despropionyl fentanyl, among others. He was reportedly trying to treat a number of serious and painful issues, including a broken hip.
Fentanyl kills most often when it is disguised as another drug. Heroin users take it accidentally, or a party-girl at a rave pops a pill and gets more than she bargained for. It’s not a drug that’s sought out, really. Although that has been changing.
Some users seek fentanyl out looking for a stronger high. After years of opioid addiction, drug users build up a resistance to the effects of the “weaker” opioids. In fact, opioid users eventually reach a point where their body will start to go into withdrawal unless they take more drugs.
So some turn to synthetics looking for a bigger high and relief from the symptoms of withdrawal.
But even those with high opiate tolerance are at a major risk of overdosing on a drug like fentanyl. And because the drug is so strong, it’s very difficult to dilute it. A grain or two more powder in the spoon can be the difference between life and death for most users.
Illegally manufactured fentanyl has led to the rise of its use on the street, and also the corresponding rise in overdose deaths. As Chinese-made methylfentanyl powder is smuggled into the country, and Mexican labs churn out more and more of the drug to be used in counterfeit pill schemes, street use rises.
Studies carried out by the Centers for Disease Control found that only 4% of fentanyl overdoses were suspected to have originated from a legitimate medical prescription. Synthetic opiates are taking up more and more of the market for hard drugs in America’s cities. Even rural areas are seeing an increase in opiate usage; more and more, fentanyl is creeping into those communities too.
The numbers don’t lie. The death toll will only keep rising as fentanyl becomes more commonplace.