If you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve probably heard of the newest drug on the block – Fentanyl. It’s been all over the news and most of us even know someone who has succumbed to a fatal Fentanyl overdose. The prominence of this drug has skyrocketed over the last few years and the one conclusion we can draw from its arrival is that it’s potent and dangerous. But why fentanyl? Where did it come from, how did it get so popular and why now?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid approved by the FDA for use as a painkiller and anesthetic. It’s stronger because it functions by binding to opioid receptors in the brain at a faster rate and with smaller doses, than morphine or heroin. Similar to its other opioid companions, fentanyl boosts levels of chemical dopamine, which controls feelings of pleasure and euphoria. Fentanyl has a medical purpose. It’s generally used for chronic pain patients who need long-term care and around-the-clock pain relief. It’s administered via patches on the skin, lozenges, or via a shot.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2016 synthetic opioids like fentanyl surpassed prescription opioids as the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths in the United States. These new overdose deaths are linked to illegal fentanyl, which is found on the street as a white powder and can be easily mixed with heroin. Many drug consumers aren’t even aware they’re purchasing fentanyl because it comes unknowingly mixed with heroin. Other drug users specifically seek out fentanyl because the potency is so high, they won’t need as much to get high and their money goes farther.
It’s also profitable for sellers in the drug business. Dealers can cut it into many more doses and combine it with heroin to make their product stronger. Where does this profitable fentanyl come from? USA Today says that US authorities report that 80 percent of pure fentanyl arrives through the mail from China. Even though fentanyl is an illegal substance in China, all chemists need to do is tweak the chemical formula by one molecule and technically they are making a substance that is almost identical to fentanyl, but not yet illegal. The governments of China and the US have attempted to crack down the importing of fentanyl to the US. Recently, federal prosecutors indicted several Chinese nationals for selling fentanyl to Americans over the internet, but neither government could say whether any of the fentanyl-producing labs in China have been shut down.
The rapid and potent effects of fentanyl on the mind and body means even small amounts of this drug can be dangerous and even fatal. This is how we ended up with fentanyl being a major factor in today’s opioid crisis. Because fentanyl is widely mixed with heroin and easier and cheaper to get, more overdose deaths have become the reality. In two years, overdose deaths tripled from 3,105 in 2013 to 9,580 in 2015.
How can drug users stay safe and get help? The widespread use of overdose reversal drug, Naloxone, has helped save countless lives and is available at pharmacies and held by most first responders. This powerful drug can bring a person back to life in seconds. The Surgeon General released an official statement recommending anyone with an opioid prescription, as well as any friends and family of people with an opioid use disorder, and people actively using fentanyl and heroin to know how to use Naloxone and have it readily available.
Additionally, other harm reduction approaches such as safe injection sites and medication assisted treatment are being advocated for across the US. Fentanyl testing strips are also being used to test the presence of fentanyl and fentanyl analogs in drug supplies found on the street. Making these test strips available to drug users allow these people to take extra precautions and reduce their risk of an opioid overdose. They may choose to use less of a substance if fentanyl is present, or make sure they have naloxone nearby, or not use the substance at all.
The opioid epidemic has become severe enough that science and public officials have started to come together in a mutual understanding on how first to reduce harm for their citizens, as well as trying to prevent fentanyl and opioid addiction all together.
The Trump administration has imposed higher postal requirements for international mail and China has taken steps towards making all fentanyl-derived substances illegal. But to date, this deadly drug still has a presence in our country.
The withdrawal symptoms from fentanyl can be severe and life-threatening. It’s not recommended to quit this drug cold turkey or without medical supervision. Medically safe detox, treatment, and holistic therapy are the ways to move forward if you or someone you know is misusing fentanyl. You can also obtain fentanyl testing strips and naloxone to keep yourself and your community safe.
Living a life free from the shackles of these substances is the ultimate goal.
Kelly Fitzgerald Junco
Kelly Fitzgerald Junco is a sober writer based in Southwest Florida who is best known for her personal blog The Adventures of a Sober Señorita. Her work has been published across the web including sites like The Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, Ravishly, SheKnows, Elite Daily, The Fix, Brit + Co, Addiction Unscripted and AfterPartyMagazine. She is currently writing a memoir.