One big problem with use and abuse of illegally obtained drugs is that the user typically has no way to tell exactly what they are taking. These days, most street drugs are cut or laced with any number of substances other than what the user thinks he or she has purchased. Sometimes, these additional substances can be as harmless as baby powder or baking soda. However, oftentimes there are other narcotic or stimulant additives that can make taking drugs a true gamble of life or death.
The heroin epidemic sweeping Maryland and the United States has gained massive public attention in the last year, as well as a top seat priority in the political scene. The overwhelming increase in heroin-related overdoses and deaths is alarming, but heroin itself is only part of the problem. In March of 2015, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) released an alert identifying the narcotic drug fentanyl as a major threat to public health. Much of the heroin found on the streets is cut with fentanyl, which is likely responsible for a significant portion of the spike in fatalities from heroin use. Further, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that in Maryland alone, 25% of drug overdose deaths now involve fentanyl (a huge spike from 2013, when this percentage was around .04%).
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate drug, typically used in surgical recovery, cancer treatment, or in situations of extreme pain. The DEA has classified fentanyl as a Schedule II drug (having some medical use but high abuse potential), that possesses anywhere from 30-50 times the potency or strength of heroin itself. This means that even very low doses can produce an overdose or sudden death. Further, a synthetic (chemically produced) version of fentanyl known as “acetyl fentanyl” is also in circulation, which has no approved medical use and also poses serious risks (see Stogner, 2014). According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the effects of fentanyl can include (but are not limited to):
- A sense of euphoria
- Sleepiness and confusion
- Decreased respiratory function
- Loss of consciousness
The DEA report mentioned previously reported some striking statistics about the recent appearances of fentanyl around the United States:
- State and local labs reported 3,344 fentanyl submissions in 2014, over a threefold increase from the previous year (National Forensic Laboratory Information System, NFLIS)
- New Hampshire State Laboratory recently reported four fentanyl overdose deaths within a two-month period.
- In the first six months of 2014, New Jersey reported as many as 80 fentanyl deaths.
- Since 2013, Pennsylvania has reported about 200 deaths related to fentanyl.
- Over a 10-year period In the St. Louis area, fentanyl was the only drug attributed as a primary death factor in 44 percent of fentanyl-related overdoses.
- In June 2014, DEA New York dismantled a heroin and fentanyl network and arrested the two heads of the organization. These individuals were linked to at least three overdose deaths from heroin and fentanyl they sold.
These reports are alarming in that they highlight a huge risk factor in the already dangerous practice of heroin use. The presence of both fentanyl and fentanyl-derived compounds in heroin increases the risk of overdose considerably.
If someone you know is a heroin user, educate yourself on Narcan (naloxone) and it’s proper usage. Many states have programs in place which train laypersons for administration in emergency situations, and this could very well reverse the effects of heroin and/or fentanyl, and might save someone’s life. However, Narcan isn’t a “cure”- addiction is still addiction. Getting sober is the safest option. If you or someone you know wants to get help for a drug addiction, call the admissions team at Serenity Acres today- hope is available.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2015). DEA Issues Nationwide Alert on Fentanyl as Threat to Health and Public Safety [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.dea.gov/divisions/hq/2015/hq031815.shtml
- Stogner, J. M. (2014). The potential threat of acetyl fentanyl: legal issues, contaminated heroin, and acetyl fentanyl “disguised” as other opioids. Ann Emerg Med, 64(6), 637-9.
- Emerging Trends: Surge in Fentanyl Overdose Deaths (July 2015). Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/emerging-trends