Over the last 25 years, the United States has been struggling to overcome the opioid crisis. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), physicians rapidly started prescribing opioid pain relievers to patients because pharmaceutical companies assured them they were not addictive. After the sudden increase in prescribed opioids, patients started becoming addicted to these medications. With drug misuse on the rise, drug overdoses became more frequent.
Today, over 115 people die every day from opioid overdoses in the United States. The CDC concluded that there was a 51% increase in drug overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017 in the U.S. with illicitly manufactured Fentanyl being the most common drug. In this same conclusion, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Massachusetts had the highest death rates from synthetic opioid overdoses.
Why Can Doctors Prescribe Fentanyl to Patients?
But, not to get confused. There is a difference between pharmaceutical Fentanyl and illicitly manufactured Fentanyl:
Pharmaceutical Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever used in many healthcare settings. It is 50-100 times more potent than Morphine. It is typically prescribed as a pain management medication for patients undergoing cancer treatments or end-of-life care. This drug is regulated and can be prescribed by a physician, usually in the form of a patch or lozenge.
Illicitly manufactured Fentanyl is man-made, or “street,” Fentanyl made in clandestine labs. It has found its way on to our streets because it is usually mixed in with Heroin, Cocaine, and Methamphetamines, some of the most common drug contributors to the opioid crisis. Unfortunately, most users do not know that their “drug of choice” has traces of Fentanyl in it, causing the frequent overdoses. This drug is not regulated and is illegal. It is often found in the form of power, liquid or aerosol.
How is Fentanyl Getting into the U.S.?
Unfortunately, “street” Fentanyl is smuggled into the U.S. from other countries because of lenient pharmaceutical regulations and laws. In an interview with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), explained the process by which Fentanyl is smuggled is much simpler than Heroin or Cocaine, as the laboratory process is not as complex and it can be transported in much smaller packages. Not only has illicitly manufactured fentanyl been distributed around the country, but the CDC confirmed there are also fentanyl analogs, such as acetylfentanyl, furanylfentanyl, and carfentanil, which are similar in chemical structure to fentanyl but not routinely detected because specialized toxicology testing is required.
So how do we put an end to the rising death toll from Fentanyl? The approach must be more proactive, rather than just distributing Naloxone to treat overdoses. While Naloxone has saved thousands of lives from treating drug overdoses. But it doesn’t treat the fact that these drugs still exist on our streets. It doesn’t treat the fact that 2.1 million people in the United States suffer from substance abuse disorders related to opioids. And, it doesn’t treat the fact that 72,000 people die each year from drug overdoses related to opioids.