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Fentanyl is the new deadly drug epidemic.
February 17, 2017

How Fentanyl Became Deadly: The Deadly Crisis Affecting the Nation

Fentanyl is the new deadly drug epidemic.

The fight against America’s opiate addiction epidemic has a new adversary to contend with: the reemerging drug threat known as fentanyl (Carfentanil), which recently became the latest opiate to send thousands of users to their deaths. Included among the growing number of casualties was the 57-year-old pop singer, Prince, who last year reportedly overdosed on counterfeit generic painkillers containing fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate drug that is 100 times more potent than the popular prescription painkiller, hydrocodone, and 50 times more potent than heroin. The drug’s painkilling properties have served it well in therapeutic settings where, as a controlled substance, it has been doctor-prescribed to relieve severe pain following surgery, chronic pain in patients tolerant to other painkilling narcotics, or pain associated with cancer. But these same powerful painkilling effects have made fentanyl a drug of abuse; and its illicit versions, including the analog, carfentanil, an elephant sedative — the latest hot source of revenue for drug traffickers.

This article will educate readers on the dangers of fentanyl and carfentanil and how they came to be the latest alarm bells in today’s deadly opiate crisis.

How Fentanyl and Carfentanil Are Hitting South Florida

The deadly crisis of fentanyl and carfentanil has hit close to home, in Palm Beach County (where Beach House Center for Recovery resides) and in greater South Florida. In South Florida, fentanyl is emerging as a key driver of the opiate epidemic locally (just as it is in areas across the U.S.) The drug has been implicated in roughly half of all recent deaths from heroin and other opiates. Every two hours, someone in southern Florida reportedly overdoses from heroin, fentanyl or a similar powerful painkiller, according to federal officials.

South Florida has joined New England, New Jersey, Ohio, and Southern Appalachia as one of a number of national “hot spots” for fentanyl and fentanyl compounds such as carfentanil, according to a Sun Sentinel article in November 2016. In just six months, 50 people died from carfentanil in nearby Broward County last year.

Carfentanil has been preliminarily detected in the bodies of at least 107 people who died of suspected overdoses this year, according to newly released data by the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office.

In Palm Beach County (where Beach House Center for Recovery resides), the statistics are similarly alarming. In 2015, the Palm Beach Post reported that roughly once every other day, a heroin-related or fentanyl overdose claimed the life of a man, woman or teenager in Palm Beach County. That was reportedly more than all fatal traffic crashes and almost two times the number of homicides in our county.

Fentanyl Abuse and Dangers

Last year the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration released a drug threat assessment that detailed an alarming uptick in fentanyl-related overdose deaths. These reportedly coincided with a sharp rise in the overseas manufacturing and trafficking of fentanyl, which is mixed with heroin products or put into counterfeit prescription pills and then sold to users, often without their awareness.

Many users end up buying fentanyl when they thought they were getting heroin — and at the cost of their life. During just one year (2013 – 2014), deaths from synthetic opiates soared by 79 percent increase, according to the same DEA report, which attributed “most of this increase” to fentanyl.

Like other opiate drugs, fentanyl works on the brain’s opioid receptors, numbing painful sensations and emotions and causing the body, including respiration, to slow down. The high potency of fentanyl only intensifies the risk of overdose, however. Breathing can stop, followed by cardiac arrest and then death within minutes.

A fact sheet from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) details how illicit fentanyl is used and trafficked. In its street form, fentanyl or fentanyl-laced heroin is known by names such as Apache, China Girl, China White, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, Murder 8, TNT, and Tango and Cash. (In its prescription form, fentanyl goes by various names such as Actiq, Duragesic and Sublimaze.)

In addition to showing up in counterfeit prescription pills or tablets, or as an ingredient in heroin products, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl is also sold as a powder or spiked on blotter paper. Users in these cases either snort or inject the drug or, with blotter paper, imbibe it in their mouths, absorbing the drug through their mucous membrane.

Dangers of Carfentanil

Fentanyl’s chemical analog, carfentanil, is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 5,000 times more potent than heroin. It is also 100 times more potent than fentanyl itself. By way of comparison, as little as 2mg of fentanyl is enough to be lethal to human beings, whereas even tiny airborne particles of carfentanil can kill a person.

The drug, which is used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other very large mammals, was the focus of another DEA drug warning alert in fall 2016. Carfentanil is reportedly so dangerous that even its improper handling by police and first responders can be fatal. The drug has been linked to “a significant number” of overdose deaths (numbering in the hundreds) in various parts of the country, according to the September 2016 alert. It warned that members of the public who come into contact with the drug should avoid any exposure whatsoever, because of the drug’s lethal potency. Law enforcement officials and first responders also must exercise extreme caution in handling the drug — so much so that in drug busts where carfentanil is suspected to be present, law enforcement authorities must wear special protective suits.

Because carfentanil looks like cocaine and heroin, it can pass easily for these drugs; and because it is so potent, only small levels are needed to spike a large supply of counterfeit painkillers. Both factors help to explain how the drug is turning up with greater frequency in communities across the country: it apparently is good for the drug cartel business.

Unlike non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, which is manufactured in Mexico, carfentanil and other fentanyl compounds come primarily from China.