In the past several years, fentanyl has popped up in news articles around the world. Many people first learned of the drug when pop artist, Prince passed away from a drug overdose after using it. Once used as an effective sedative, this potent medication was also found to be a powerful pain reliever and was prescribed to terminally ill cancer patients.
Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. This added potency means that it works well for alleviating the most severe pain. What was once a powerful drug that could provide relief for seriously ill patients has become the leading drug in an epidemic that has spread across the country.
This trend is expected to continue to increase for the foreseeable future. This leaves many people asking the question of what is fentanyl and is fentanyl more deadly than heroin?
Fentanyl and Addiction
Fentanyl is a highly addictive medication used by physicians to either sedate patients for surgery or relieves severe pain. It is a synthetic, man-made medication that is very potent and highly addictive. In a controlled medical setting, it is carefully weighed and measured due to its potency.
In recent years, it has been added to other drugs, most commonly heroin. Whereas medically produced fentanyl is safe and effective when administered correctly, abuse of the drug is often lethal. When produced to be combined with a street drug, such as heroin, it is often produced in varying doses and easily causes drug overdoses.
Prescription Opioids and Drug Dependence
In the 2000s, the United States was facing a prescription drug epidemic of huge proportions. Once believed to be safe, pain medications were widely prescribed and many patients became addicted by the late 90s.
Opioids were being prescribed at increasing rates for everything from minor pain to severe post-surgical pain. A wide range of people from all walks of life was becoming affected by opioid addiction.
On top of widespread opioid use and addiction, pain management clinics began popping up across the U.S. These clinics hired doctors that were willing to prescribe opioid pain medications to patients without any concern for the patient’s health or well-being.
The Return of Heroin
The United States eventually began to more tightly regulate how the opioid pain medication oxycodone was prescribed in order to prevent addiction. After the government began more tightly controlling oxycodone and other prescription pain killers, already addicted patients began to look for alternatives. The Mexican drug cartels, recognized this need and began transporting heroin, a natural drug created from poppies, into the U.S. in record numbers.
Heroin addiction rates soared and demand increased, but the cartels couldn’t keep up with the demand. Heroin is time-consuming and labor-intensive to produce. Another problem for the cartels was that it was bulky to transport, which had to be done carefully. This forced the drug cartels to explore other options, which led them to fentanyl.
The products used to make fentanyl are easy to obtain. Fentanyl can be produced quickly with the final product more compact, making it easier to transport across the border. This solution allowed the cartels to raise the prices of heroin and provide a lighter, more potent product.
At first, the drug was used to boost the effects of low-quality heroin. Unfortunately, people used their normal heroin dose, not knowing the heroin was laced with fentanyl. Many of these users overdosed after their first use of fentanyl.
New Hampshire alone lost 439 lives to overdoses in 2015. A staggering 70 percent of those were from fentanyl. This state was not alone. The number of fentanyl deaths has continued to climb across the nation year after year, with 20,100 fentanyl-related deaths nationwide in 2016.
How Fentanyl Kills
In 2015, 11 SWAT officers developed symptoms of an overdose after raiding a home in Hartford, CT. The grenade they used in the raid, caused the fentanyl laced heroin to become airborne.
Not only is fentanyl a strong drug, it can also be taken in a number of ways. Inhaling it or coming into contact with a person’s skin can deliver a lethal dose. In many states, first responders now carry naloxone or Narcan, a drug used to reverse overdoses, with them. If they are accidentally exposed to fentanyl, nalaxone is their only chance at survival. Fentanyl is so strong that many police forces now wear Tyvek suits and respirators prior to conducting a raid.
What makes fentanyl more deadly than heroin is that it passes more easily through the fatty tissue in the brain and attaches firmly to the mu opioid receptor in the brain. This results in a nearly instantaneous delivery of the drug and makes it more difficult to reverse the effects.
A Fentanyl Epidemic
In 2016, 64,000 overdose deaths were reported in the U.S. Of these deaths, 20,100 were caused by fentanyl. This number helped make drug overdose the leading cause of death in people under 50 years old in the United States. These numbers continue to climb as a result of fentanyl’s deadly attributes.
While 30 milligrams of heroin is fatal, it takes only a mere 3 milligrams of fentanyl to kill the average adult male. A small amount of fentanyl significantly boosts the effects of heroin and fuels addiction. It is manufactured on the streets, often using inaccurate and inexpensive scales. The slightest miscalculation will result in an overdose.
The largest cities in our nation are at an increased risk of seeing overdoses. According to the Washington Post, deaths from fentanyl jumped from 582 in 2014 to 3,946 in 2016. If this trend continues, more and more people will continue to die as a direct result of using fentanyl or products laced with fentanyl.
The fact is that fentanyl, thanks to its extreme potency and chemical makeup, is far more deadly than heroin. Heroin users are exposed to a much greater risk of overdose if it is laced with fentanyl and there is no way to identify it before it is taken.
Photo Source: Christian Spies
About the author:
Nicole earned her doctoral degree in Psychology with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy at California School of Professional Psychology. Her doctoral thesis was a grounded theory study exploring the role of alienation and connectedness in the life course of addiction. She specializes in treating addiction and trauma. She is certified in DBT and EMDR, two of the most highly regarded evidence-based methods in psychotherapy. Dr. Doss is a strong LGBT advocate and provides open and affirming support to her LGBT clients.
Dr. Doss’s earlier education included graduating cum laude from the University of California, Irvine in June of 2007 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. While there, she received honors recognition by Psi Chi and Golden Key honor societies.
Nicole has been working with alcoholics and addicts in our California drug and alcohol rehab center as an advisor and counselor for many years. She is passionate about providing quality counseling and care to her clients. Her main focus is on integrating the 12 Step and disease models of addiction with experiential therapeutic theory. She is married to Greg; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.