Dying to Get Higher: Fentanyl Exacerbating Opioid Crisis

As the opiate epidemic saturates the United States, fentanyl is the new villain in the war on drugs. It kills more people than heroin and prescription pills. As users seek a better and cheaper high, fentanyl promises to deliver, with exponentially deadlier results.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is prescribed for severe pain management most often associated with cancer and end-of-life care. It is also used in concert with other drugs as anesthesia. However, the illicitly manufactured version of the synthetic opiate is often mixed with heroin to increase potency. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, heroin, and oxycodone—driving the spike in overdoses. In 2016, 46 percent of the 42,249 opioid-related overdose deaths in the U.S. involved synthetics such as fentanyl—triple the increase from 2010, according to the Journal of American Medicine Association.

Additionally, overdose deaths from synthetic opioids significantly increased in 21 states and more than doubled in 10. New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Massachusetts had the highest overdose death rates. The increase disproportionately impacts the Mid-west, Northeast, and some Southern states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The three-prong approach to addressing the supply side of the fentanyl issue includes forming international partnerships, law enforcement collaboration, and undercover online operations.

China’s large chemical and pharmaceutical industries manufacture fentanyl and fentanyl-like compounds known as analogues to export with little regulatory oversight. Fentanyl ends up in pills, patches, and powder forms of illicitly produced drugs from counterfeit pain medications. The analogues vary slightly on a molecular level, a factor being used in order to exploit discrepancies between the laws in the U.S. and China.