The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that fentanyl is responsible for 29% of all fatal overdoses. This makes it the leading cause of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. or, in short, one of the deadliest drugs in America.
Throughout every era, drug use in America has fueled epidemics and with it, overdose rates. While substance preferences have shifted from decade-to-decade, addiction is responsible for many overdose deaths across all communities. In the 1970s, the country faced cocaine abuse. In the 1990s it was heroin. In the early 2000s, families took to prescription narcotics like Oxycontin and Vicodin. Of all of the drugs widely circulated, what are the deadliest drugs in America?
While all of those drugs remain prevalent today, it appears that fentanyl, an addictive painkiller may be the most life threatening and widely sweeping drug of our current era. Although invented in 1960, the opioid only recently became a household name in the last few years. The drug’s infamy stems largely from the fact that it contributes enormously to America’s growing overdose rate. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently declared that it is the number one cause of drug overdoses in the United States. However, it’s hardly the only lethal drug on the market. We’re uncovering a few below.
Is Fentanyl Really the Deadliest Drug in America?
In their most recent National Vital Statistics Report publication, the CDC outlines statistics concerning overdose rates in the U.S. Specifically, they looked at which drugs result in death after use. Their findings: fentanyl has quickly risen to the top of lists of the most deadly drugs in America. Although heroin killed the most Americans between 2012 and 2015, this synthetic opioid has far surpassed it. Heroin reached it’s peak in 2016 with a record 15,469 tragic deaths and has fallen almost 10% in 2019. Meanwhile, synthetic opioids – primarily fentanyl – have steadily risen. More than 36, 359 overdose deaths due to fentanyl abuse were recorded in 2019.
More alarmingly, studies found that each year, the number of deaths from fentanyl doubles. But what is this deadly drug and – considering these alarming statistics – why is it still prescribed?
What is Fentanyl? A Brief Profile of the Deadly Substance
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. Much like oxycodone and hydrocodone, it’s a drug created in labs to mimic the effects of natural opioids like heroin. The difference, however, is that this drug is far more powerful. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it’s between 50 and 100 times more potent than heroin. It is currently classified as a Schedule II prescription drug.
According to the U.S Drug Enforcement of Administration, drugs with this classification have accepted medical use. However, they also have a high potential for abuse and are known to cause addiction.
Other drugs with this classification include morphine, opium, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. Fentanyl products are produced and sold by a number of different manufacturers. Janssen makes a project called Sublimaze, for example. Teva Pharmaceutics makes a similar product called ACTIQ. Other brand name products include:
Many experts believe that these fentanyl analogs are responsible for the large majority of overdose deaths. The drug is mainly prescribed to individuals who suffer from chronic pain, or those in hospice or end-of-life care. Typically, doctors prescribe it to those who’ve developed a tolerance to less powerful opioids.
In recent years, the drug has been employed in capital punishment. A death row inmate in Nebraska, for example, received a lethal injection of fentanyl as part of his death sentence in 2018.
Combining Fentanyl and other Drugs
Among other deadly drugs in America, fentanyl is also used for recreational purposes. Many drug dealers actually cut batches of heroin and cocaine with fentanyl, which is causing more frequent cases of dependency given how potent fentanyl is. This helps them to increase their profit margins.
Fentanyl is showing up in cocaine, heroin other pain medications like Percocet and Oxycodone, and in prescription anxiety medications like Xanax. Synthetic drugs are often more deadly not only because of how strong they are, but also because of the ever-changing ways in which they are blended into other substances. This makes it difficult for people to know not only what they are taking, but also the strength of the drug.
Forms of Fentanyl
The drug comes in a range of different forms. When sold as a legal, prescription drug, it’s often found in pill or tablet form. Sometimes, patients are given the drug in lollipop form as an alternative to traditional pills. Occasionally, it’s administered via injection. This is usually the case when patients receive during or after major surgery. Some patients also take it in the form of an adhesive transdermal patch that sticks to the arm like a nicotine patch.
Much like heroin, the drug is usually found in powder form on the street. Users snort, smoke, and inject the powder. Sometimes, the powder is formed into pills. Oftentimes, it’s mixed into other drugs.
How Does Fentanyl Work?
It has a similar mechanism of action to other drugs in that family. Essentially, these drugs allow the user to gather extra dopamine by blocking the opioid receptors in their brain. When the inhibitors are blocked, more of the neurotransmitter is able to flood in. Opioids also dull a user’s pain by releasing GABA and other neurotransmitters into their system.
The main difference between fentanyl and other opioids is that it generates far more neurotransmitters than other drugs. This is why it’s more powerful. Further, this drug has a relatively short half-life, which means it doesn’t stay in the user’s system for too long.
When a user takes fentanyl, their body expels roughly 50% of the drug every 90 minutes. If someone were to take 100 micrograms intravenously, for example, roughly 50 of those would pass through their system within the first two hours. In this sense, the drug is quite comparable to morphine which has a similar half-life. The drug is intended to ease pain. However, it can cause a number of side effects. Some of them include:
- Back pain
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth
- Limb swelling
- Stomach inflammation
- Rapid heartbeat
- Blurry vision
The drug goes by a variety of different names on the street including China girl, China white, TNT, Tango, Cash, Friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, and Apache.
Fentanyl & Other Deadliest Drugs in America
The CDC 2018 deadliest drug report provides a poignant insight into the way the drug crisis is affecting our country. In particular, it showed just how dramatically fentanyl has taken control. Although the drug is responsible for 29% of all overdose deaths today, for example, the report points out that it hasn’t been that way for long.
In 2011, just a few years ago, the substance was involved in only 4% of fatal overdoses. At that time, the main culprit was oxycodone. But, oxycodone’s reign was not nearly as bad as the fentanyl epidemic. Even at its peak, the drug was responsible for only 13% of overdose deaths. And today, while drugs like Oxycontin kill roughly 6,100 Americans each year, fentanyl is involved in nearly 18,000 deaths. That’s three times as many fatalities!
In just 2015, the drug was only responsible for around 8,000 deaths. And while that’s certainly a lot, it’s not nearly as bad as the almost-20,000 deaths it caused just a year later. Although heroin, the number two killer on the list, was involved in roughly 16,000 deaths, crystal meth (the third leading cause of overdose) killed a little over 11,000 in the same year. Each of the deadliest drugs in America is frightening, but synthetic opioids continue to cause many more deaths and those trends don’t seem to be improving.
Fentanyl in the Public Eye: Celebrity Overdoses
The drug has killed dozens of stars including Prince, Tom Petty, Mac Miller, and Lil Peep. When megastar musician Prince died of a fentanyl overdose in 2016, the drug was not yet a household name. Although it had killed a few dozen Americans in that decade alone, people were still blaming the opioid crisis on heroin and Oxycontin. It Prince’s death, however, that seemed to bring the drug into the public spotlight.
With BBC publishing articles with titles like “It led to Prince’s death, but what is the prescription medication fentanyl”, the non-using public began to understand this drug’s effect on culture and the extreme dangers of substance abuse. “This is kind of a wakeup call for people around the country about the power and danger of these pills,” said Bob Woodruff, ABC News correspondent. But while the public has become increasingly aware of the drug’s danger, it shows little signs of slowing. Of course, other celebrities have died from it as well. Among them was singer-songwriter Tom Petty, who died accidentally from a cocktail of fentanyl mixed with other deadly substances and opioids.
“This is kind of a wakeup call for people around the country about the power and danger of these pills.” – Bob Woodruff, ABC News
As the BBC’s announcement article explains, the artist had been overusing the drug for a period of time before his death. “Many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications,” his family wrote in a Facebook post, taking the opportunity to educate the public.
Mac Miller & Lil Peep: Fentanyl Overdoses
More recently, the public was stunned when young rappers Malcolm “Mac Miller” McCormick and Gustav “Lil Peep” Ahr both died from an OD on the substance. Miller was found with the drug in his system, alongside some cocaine and fentanyl. Ahr, on the other hand, tested positive for cannabis, cocaine, Tramadol, and alprazolam in addition to fentanyl. In both cases, the public speculated that neither of them was aware of what they had taken. Ahr’s brother, for example, suggested that the singer didn’t know his drugs were laced. “He thought he could take what he did,” Karl Ahr said in an interview with People, “But he had been given something and he didn’t realize what it was.” Whatever the case, it’s clear that these deaths have greatly increased awareness around the drug’s effects. Although tragic, these celebrity overdoses have started to teach the general public about what these substances are capable of.
Many Users Don’t Even Know What They’ve Taken
“[My nephew’s] story could very well save your child’s life…Please, share his story.”
A recent article, published on WSBTV.com, profiles one Arizona woman who lost her nephew to a fentanyl overdose. Her nephew, who was only 19 years old at the time, died after overdosing on pills that he thought were Percocet. Like many illegally-manufactured drugs circulating the street today, however, the pills were laced with fentanyl. Because his body was likely not prepared for the drug, it sent his system into shock. Ultimately, the young man wound up dying.
“[My nephew’s] story could very well save your child’s life,” the woman wrote in a Facebook post, urging parents to warn their children about the prevalence of the drug, “Please, share his story.”
It Happens All the Time…
The story is not uncommon. It’s a regular occurrence for users to take fentanyl by accident. After all, dealers often use the drug as a “cutting agent”, or filler. They sell it to unsuspecting customers who believe they’re buying something else. A special report entitled Dope Sick, published on STATNews.com, goes in-depth on this topic. “Fentanyl is a stealth killer,” David Armstrong, the article’s author writes, “[It’s] often sold to clueless buyers as heroin, prescription pain pills, or the anti-anxiety medication Xanax.”
“In Sacramento, 12 people died after taking what they thought was Norco. In Clearwater, Florida, 9 users died from taking fake anti-anxiety pills with fentanyl in them.”
The article tells the story of two young friends, DJ and Justin, who developed a taste for the drug without even knowing what they were taking. Although the two men experimented with a number of different drugs together, DJ would eventually die from a fentanyl overdose. Both Justin, who survived, and DJ’s family were surprised to learn from the toxicology report that heroin was not the culprit. At the time, the two best friends had been using the narcotic. But, as the article explains, “[The toxicology] team didn’t find any heroin. What they did discover was a lethal dose of fentanyl”. And, as Armstrong illustrates in his piece, this occurs frequently in cities all over America. He points out that, in Sacramento, 12 people died after taking what they thought was Norco. In Clearwater, Florida, 9 users died from taking fake anti-anxiety pills with fentanyl in them. Obviously, it’s scary to consider such a deadly drug circulating through the market. But, it only proves that increased awareness around the drug is necessary.
Where is All of this Fentanyl Coming From?
Although the drug is responsible for a massive number of deaths each year, it’s actually relatively hard to obtain legally. While doctors are largely responsible for overprescribing it earlier in the decade, the Drug Enforcement Agency took steps to limit its manufacture and prescription. So, it appears that we can no longer blame doctors for the crisis.
These days, they seem to be prescribing it only to cancer patients and other folks who need intensive pain management meds. So, where does the fentanyl come from? How does it get into the hands of people who abuse it? And how are dealers able to cut their drug batches with it?
Issues of Regulating Fentanyl
According to many news sources, the drug may be entering the country through China. A recent report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission breaks it down.
Basically, China’s pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing industries are somewhat poorly regulated. As a result, many illegal manufacturers are able to fly under the radar. Not only are they able to produce the chemicals necessary to make fentanyl, but they’re also able to ship them to the US, too. As the report states: “Chinese law enforcement officials have struggled to adequately regulate thousands of chemical and pharmaceutical facilities operating legally and illegally in the country, leading to increased production and export of illicit chemicals and drugs.” While some production is certainly taking place in the U.S. (police recently seized 900 bags in Hartford), the government has taken steps to limit the amount imported from China.
In December of 2018, the country’s government announced that it would tighten regulations around the drug. This measure was partially fueled by ongoing discussions between the two countries around the topic. Although it’s too soon to know, these increased regulations could help to cut down on the number of overdose deaths that occur in the US each year.
A Common Gateway Drug for Heroin Users
The deadliest drugs in America often have clear ties to one another. These days, it’s an all too common story: a regular person transitions from using opioids into heroin addiction. In fact, research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that nonmusical pain relief users are 19 times more likely to become a heroin user down the road.
Essentially the organization suggests that the prevalence of prescription opioids has created a landscape where heroin use is much more common. They point out, for example, that 80% of the heroin addicts who started using in the 60s began by taking heroin. In other words, prescription pills were not a “gateway drug” for them. But these days, it’s much different. According to the organization’s report, roughly 75% of all opioid abusers who began using in the 2000s started with prescription medications.
Over time, these users transitioned from legally prescribed drugs like oxycodone and fentanyl to illicit drugs like heroin and illegally-manufactured pills. The problem, of course, is that this drug is highly addictive. So, many people become hooked on the substance to the point where they need it to get out of bed in the morning.
No one plans to become an addict. Many people become hooked on their prescription and are forced to find a supply elsewhere.
If their doctor happens to cut them off or their insurance stops covering it, however, they’re often forced to find it elsewhere. In a survey published on the NIH website, the organization reported that 94% of users in treatment stated they transitioned to heroin because the drug was less expensive than prescription opioids.
Are you addicted to your painkiller prescription? Take our free online quiz to find out.
Hope for Fentanyl Addicts
Treating some of the most deadliest drugs in America is not simple. Addiction is a complex disease that impacts millions of individuals and families each year. The number continue to grow as health professionals race to find clear answers to the growing fentanyl abuse trends.
Throughout America, there are a variety of addiction treatment resources available to people suffering from opioid addiction. We’ll delve into a few of them below to explain how they work and why they’re important.
Rehab Treatment: Treating the Mental Side of Addiction
Fentanyl addiction is more than just a physical disease. The user often requires extensive therapy aimed to address the emotional side of their condition.
Too often, naysayers brush off addiction as a matter of willpower. The subject is often discussed as if the person using can simply quit if they wanted. In reality, addiction is a disease no different than cancer, diabetes, or other chronic condition. While the symptoms of addiction are vastly different than other illnesses, it’s still incredibly complex.
For example, no one chooses to become dependent on a drug. Addicts are just people who encountered a certain substance during the wrong period in their life and slowly became accustomed to using it. Comprehensive and proven drug and alcohol rehab treatment, focuses on understanding the why’s behind substance abuse. Individuals will work with counselors and specialists who help them to comprehend how the drug works in their body and what makes them desire it. They also work closely with therapists who attempt to address any trauma or underlying mental health issues that may have caused or impacted a person’s ability to find sobriety.
AspenRidge: Treating the Deadliest Drugs in America
Are you or a loved one addicted to this prescription opioid? We can offer the help and support you need.
If you or a loved one is currently struggling with opioid addiction or any other substance abuse, we can help. AspenRidge offers tailored programs that address the complexities of addiction as a deadly disease. Our dual diagnosis center focuses on comprehensive approaches that are designed to address substance abuse while also attending to underlying mental conditions like:
Our trained and licensed specialists offer a range of therapies that target some of the symptoms caused by the deadliest drugs in America. Therapies can include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Dialectical behavior therapy
- Life skills training
- Trauma therapy
- And more!
We are located in Colorado and provide ongoing support for clients and their families. Our expert staff takes pride in supporting addicts through the beginning of their recovery journey. It would be our pleasure to offer you assistance. Not every fentanyl addiction story has to end tragically. It’s possible for even the most severe users to turn their lives around. Through detoxification, counseling, and therapy, we can help you get back on the right path.
Give us a call today 719-259-1107 to receive help for alcohol and drug addiction.