The Fentanyl Factor in the Opioid Epidemic

fentanyl

The opioid addiction crisis gripping the nation has been bad enough but now drug officials and first responders increasingly see cases of heroin mixed with the powerful analgesic fentanyl.

Fentanyl-laced heroin is much more potent than heroin alone. Originally developed as a pain medication for cancer patients, the synthetic opioid is typically 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

“There’s a new heroin on the street far more potent than the usual that people who are addicted to heroin have come to know and expect,” Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz warned in a SAMHSA blog post in October.

As confiscations of illegally made fentanyl have increased, so have fentanyl-related overdose deaths. The Drug Enforcement Administration says fentanyl-related overdoses killed more than 700 people nationwide between late 2013 and early 2015. The actual number is probably higher as many coroner’s offices and state crime labs only test for fentanyl poisoning when requested.

Ohio is Heartland of Fentanyl Overdoses

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that “in 2013, there were a total of 92 fentanyl-related unintentional overdose deaths in Ohio. In 2014, preliminary data show 514 fentanyl-related unintentional overdose deaths, almost a 500 percent increase.” More than 80 percent of all fentanyl confiscations in 2014 occurred in the 10 states in the graphic below.

fentanyl confiscations

The chart illustrates that Ohio has been especially hard-hit. Last fall, the Ohio Department of Health requested assistance from the CDC to deal with the massive spike of fentanyl-related deaths in the state. The CDC issued a report which found that 89 percent of fatal overdose victims in Ohio were white, 69 percent male, and that the average age of victims was 38.

Fentanyl Problem is Spreading

Illicit fentanyl concoctions increasingly show up in other states as well. NOLA.com recently reported a dramatic rise in the number of fatal overdoses blamed on fentanyl in New Orleans. According to the Orleans Parish Coroner Jeffrey Rouse, there were eight fentanyl-related fatalities in the parish in January 2016 alone. This compares to 12 all year in 2015 and only two during the year before.

Fentanyl is not only more potent than heroin, it is also far cheaper. A kilogram of heroin sells for $ 75,000 to 80,000 on the streets of New Orleans, says Rouse, while the same amount of fentanyl is only $ 5,000.

Tucson.com reports that illicit fentanyl made by the Mexican “Sinaloa cartel is increasingly making its way through Arizona, and officials fear a rise in drug-related deaths will follow.” There is no statewide data on fentanyl-related fatalities for Arizona yet but the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner reports a 143 percent increase in overdose deaths from 2014 to 2015.

fentanyl related deaths

A year ago, the DEA issued a nationwide alert about fentanyl, saying that overdoses were “occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States and represent a significant threat to public health and safety.”

As the New York Times reports, 336 people died from fentanyl-related overdoses from October 2014 to October 2015 in Massachusetts—up from 219 deaths the previous year, an increase of 53 percent. Vermont had 29 deaths from fentanyl in 2015, up from 18 in 2014 and 12 in 2013, a rise of 142 percent in two years. In Maine, deaths attributed to fentanyl rose to 87 in 2015, up from 42 in 2014 and nine in 2013, an 867 percent increase in two years.

About the author: Michael Rass is an experienced broadcast and web journalist with a passion for global humanitarian issues, and policies and practices affecting the health of individuals and communities. In addition to Michael’s extensive reporting background, he also consults on digital and social media (@mikerass). Michael also does first-hand reporting and writes articles for Decision Point Center about alcohol and drug addiction treatment, the societal and cultural impact of the illegal drug epidemic in the US and abroad, and healthcare policy regarding treatment of drug abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders.