Fentanyl: Opioid Epidemic’s Third Act


The number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl was stable in 2011 (1,663) and 2012 (1,615), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Then, there were 18,335 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2016. The dramatic rise is staggering enough to give anyone pause. The opioid crisis in America is far from over despite a national, collaborative effort to stem the tide of use and abuse.

Merianne Rose Spencer, a statistician at the CDC and study co-author, tells NPR that the fentanyl death toll presented in the study is at the low end. She says that it is likely that many fentanyl-related overdose deaths went uncounted.

Fentanyl and its synthetic cousins are extremely dangerous. It boasts potency levels 100 and 50 times stronger than morphine and heroin respectively. Making synthetic opioids, arguably, the deadliest drugs on the planet.

It can be helpful to view the rise in synthetic opioid use as the third act of the decades-old scourge. What began with prescription painkillers, the article notes, followed by heroin and now fentanyl. All three opiate iterations carry a significant risk of addiction and overdose. Given that these powerful narcotics are not going to disappear, public awareness about the promise of recovery is a must.

The Rising Tide of Fentanyl in America

While the American West Coast has been relatively unaffected by the growing ubiquity of synthetic opioids, the East Coast and Midwest has not. Why? The article notes that it may owe to the fact that black tar heroin is more prominent on the Pacific Coast.

In the Midwest and along the Atlantic seaboard heroin typically is sold in white powdered form, sometimes referred to as “China White.” Mixing fentanyl with powdered heroin is easier to do and more natural to disguise. Many overdose victims are caught unaware of the presence of fentanyl in their heroin.

There are several notable findings in the CDC’s report, including that far more men are succumbing to synthetic opioids than women. Men are perishing at close to three times the rate. Ricky Bluthenthal, a professor of preventive medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, tells NPR that the gender discrepancy likely correlates to men being more likely to use alone, compared to women.

Traci Green, deputy director of Boston Medical Center’s Injury Prevention Center, has a slightly alternative explanation. She says that while women are more likely to use with another person, they are also more likely to reach out for help. They are more likely to call 911 or seek treatment.

“Women go to the doctor more,” she says. “We have health issues that take us to the doctor more. So we have more opportunities to help.” 

Any time a patient presents to a doctor exhibiting signs of an opioid use disorder it is an opportunity to promote recovery. Green says physicians can take the chance and encourage their patients to seek treatment. Many of fentanyl’s victims are not traditional opioid use disorder cases. Men and women using cocaine or methamphetamine are at risk of exposure.

Whether by accident or looking to increase demand, dealers may be purposefully getting people hooked on opioids, according to the article. David Kelley, deputy director of the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, says “That’s something we have to consider.”

“The fact that we’ve had instances where it’s been present with different drugs leads one to believe that could be a possibility.”


Increasing Number of Dangers Accompanying Addiction

The CDC report is cause for significant concern for several reasons, to be sure. However, the fact that people using any drug have the potential to be exposed to synthetic opioids is alarming. Addiction has always been risky and will always carry the potential for unfortunate tragedy. The growing prevalence of fentanyl exponentially ups the stakes.

If you or a loved one is battling a substance use disorder, we strongly encourage you to reach out to Hemet Valley Recovery Center & Sage Retreat for support. Unlike most treatment centers, we have a Chemical Dependency Rehabilitation Hospital (CDRH) license. That means we can provide programs and medical services at one location.

Take the first step and by calling 866-273-0868 today for a confidential assessment.