11 April 2023
Like many of you, I have been aware of the dangers of fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid now mass-produced largely in Mexico and smuggled into the U.S. But until recently I had not put forth the personal effort to learn more about the full extent of the fentanyl crisis.
That quickly changed after I watched the episode The fentanyl crisis and why everyone should be paying attention on the Peter Attia Drive podcast, with guest Anthony Hipolito. Hippolito is a retired law enforcement officer in Hays County, Texas, with firsthand experience with drug abuse. He has made fentanyl awareness his life’s mission after four 15 to 17-year-old students in the local school district tragically died within three months of each other from accidental fentanyl overdoses. I highly recommend you listen to (or better yet, view) the podcast. The facts are alarming.
Fentanyl was originally developed as an anesthesia and has been a legally controlled drug for over 50 years. I knew it was strong, but did not know it’s a hundred times as strong as morphine and makes heroin look as dangerous as the pot of the ’60s. Fentanyl is also extremely addictive. Those characteristics — potency and addictiveness — combined with its volume make it the most dangerous synthetic opioid out there. By miles.
Consider that between the years 2019 and 2021, drug overdose deaths in the U.S. increased from 70,600 to 106,700. Of the deaths in 2021, about 93,000 were attributed to synthetic opioids, and nearly 80 percent of those deaths involved fentanyl. In other words, fentanyl played a direct role in the overdose death of more than 74,000 Americans in 2021.
Fentanyl is insidious —the drug is everywhere and many overdose victims don’t know they’re ingesting it. Fentanyl is cleverly disguised as legal drugs, such as Percocet and Xanax, and it’s mixed in illicit drugs like cocaine. It’s in nasal spray and eye drops and can easily be combined with countless other substances. This sets it apart from drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, where users often know what they’re taking, and many overdoses, while accidental, are the result of taking too much of something users thought they were familiar with.
But even that dynamic may be changing. According to narcotics Lt. David Walker of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, it appears that fentanyl — probably thanks to its low cost and addictive properties — is now sought after. That is, more users may be intentionally dosing fentanyl. According to preliminary data for 2022, the highest frequency of overdose cases among seven different age groups in Clark County involved people 35-44 years old.
There are also warnings about how fentanyl abuse is affecting young people. The DEA cautions how fentanyl pills are produced in a variety of bright colors in a “deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults.”
What’s especially alarming is how much is flowing across our southern border. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 14,000 pounds of fentanyl was seized in 2022. To date, just five months into the 2023 reporting year, 11,000 pounds have been confiscated.
Another distressing fact: According to the DEA, “One kilogram of fentanyl has the potential to kill 500,000 people”. You may have done the math already — the equivalent of 5,000 kilograms of illicit fentanyl has been stopped from coming across the border this year. It’s fair to assume the amount of fentanyl confiscated represents only a fraction of what has actually entered into mainstream America this year alone.
The local impact of drug overdose deaths in Clark County is profound: In 2021, 871 people died from overdoses, and its likely deaths will exceed 894 in 2022. While this would represent a 2 percent increase, the increase is much lower than that of prior years. Walker attributes the slowing of the growth of fatal overdoses to community outreach efforts and general public awareness.
Even if the number of overdose deaths is leveling off compared to the steep increases in recent years, there’s no reason to fear anything but the worst when it comes to fentanyl. A recent DEA public safety alert warns of a sharp increase in the percent of fake prescription drugs that potentially contain lethal doses of fentanyl. In 2021, four of 10 fake pills were found to contain fentanyl. In 2022, studies show the rate increased to six of 10 pills.
I asked Walker for his single most important message for everyone, especially the young. He responded, “Do not ingest any prescription pill that wasn’t prescribed to you by a medical provider and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist.”
Fentanyl is mainstream and the battle against it will take a village, especially considering that other more powerful classes of synthetic opioids are making headway too. Let’s help Walker spread his sound advice — what happened in Hays County could happen anywhere.
Michael Raponi is a contributing columnist for The Nevada Independent. He can be reached at [email protected].
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