Fentanyl crisis threatening to spiral out of control

National

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WIVB) — Overdose deaths hit record highs in 2020. A total of 93,000 people died due to a drug overdose as the U.S. battled COVID-19. There were about 72,000 overdose deaths in 2019 which means they increased by 29% in 2020. 

While COVID-19 played a significant factor in these deaths, there was one other lethal player. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, contributed to 42,687 overdose deaths in the 12 months leading up to May 2020. Fentanyl is man-made and 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. 

“This drug is very, very harmful,” Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said. 

The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports that Fentanyl OD rates are increasing about 2.5 times faster than heroin overdoses. 

“We have seen that change from pure heroin into synthetic opioids, which for the dealers offer a much greater profit,” Volkow said. “But are actually much more dangerous than even pure heroin because of the intrinsic efficacy of these drugs.” 

Even the smallest amount of Fentanyl can be fatal for a user. 

“You’re talking about a single milligrams equivalent,” Bryce Pardo, a policy researcher at the RAND corporation, said. “It doesn’t take a lot to kill someone.” 

Drug dealers have begun to lace street drugs such as cocaine and heroin with fentanyl. Since fentanyl is so potent, the synthetic opioid offers dealers higher profit margins. 

“We have seen that change from pure heroin into synthetic opioids, which for the dealers offer a much greater profit,” Volkow said. “But are actually much more dangerous than even pure heroin because of the intrinsic efficacy of these drugs.” 

There are multiple potential policy decisions which could help stem the problem. Volkow said the federal government has to do a better job ensuring medication like Naloxone is widely available. 

“Putting limitations on how many Naloxone doses a person can get makes absolutely no scientific sense,” Volkow said. “And you also want to make it widely accessible. Naloxone is a very, very safe medication.”  

Pardo said law enforcement should rethink how they treat large quantities of overdose deaths. 

“When you have ten to fifteen people overdosing on the same batch,” Pardo said. “Investigate that very quickly with the same sense of urgency as a homicide. And that might draw enough attention to dealers so that they will stop dealing in such flagrantly harmful ways.” 

Volkow said one of the biggest priorities is to continue to educate people about the dangers of fentanyl. 

“The question is, how do we convey that education in a way that is salient,” Volkow said. “That signals to someone why this is different. We have to create a message that is based on what we know in terms of the science. And we absolutely don’t need to exaggerate anything because these drugs are very, very powerful and just explaining why they are particularly dangerous.” 

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