It’s all over the news, from Prince’s recent accidental fentanyl overdose to local stories about the hundreds of people whose lives have been affected by it. The drug that was originally formulated to help treat advanced and terminal cancer patients is now claiming the lives of Americans at an alarming rate. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is intended for prescription use only, but illegal forms of the drug are pervasive and devastating the lives of countless individuals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2014 there were 514 fentanyl overdose deaths; that is a 500% increase from the previous year’s records. Unfortunately, the number of fatal fentanyl overdoses only continues to rise as more and more people become dependent on opioid drugs.
The prescription form of fentanyl is considered to be 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. As a pharmaceutical, it is sold as adhesive skin patches or lozenges.
Most of these reported overdose deaths have been connected to the illegal form of the drug, but many are also obtaining the drug from those who have a prescription. Fentanyl produced on the black market usually comes from Mexico, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Use of the street version is on the rise, and is often combined with cocaine or heroin. This potentially lethal combination may or may not be disclosed to the buyer, and although they are promised a stronger high, it could very well be the last hit they ever take.
Illegal fentanyl is often packed and marketed to appear like other painkillers, making it difficult to foretell the side effects. It is also mixed with heroin, potentially making even just a small amount of it lethal. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for law enforcement officials across the country to track illegal fentanyl. According to reports from the National Forensic Laboratory Information System, there was a dramatic increase in the total number of prescription, illegal and fentanyl drug confiscations between 2012 and 2014.
CDC reports show that overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids, including fentanly, rose by 80% from 2013 to 2014. It also reported that approximately 5,500 individuals suffered fatal overdoses due to synthetic opioids in 2014 alone.
The east coast of the United States has been hardest hit by the fentanyl epidemic. States like New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Ohio have all reported an increase in fentanyl-related deaths and confiscations. The DEA has reported that more than 700 people died between the end of 2013 and the start of 2015 in fentanyl-related overdose incidents.