Worse than Oxy: The Rise of Fentanyl

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Fentanyl abuse is increasing in North America as it is making more appearances as a “street drug” and fatalities from Fentanyl overdose are stacking up. In 2013, in Ontario, Canada there were 625 people who died from opiate overdoses, Fentanyl accounted for 133 of those cases. Now in 2015, Fentanyl is estimated to kill twice as many people as heroin. What’s behind the problem is the increase in street trade of legitimately manufactured prescription patches and illicitly made fentanyl in pill form which is made to look like OxyContin, a far less powerful, but popular opiate. The illicit manufacturers are also putting out Fentanyl in liquid and powder form to cut cocaine and heroin, making for a more potent and dangerous form of those drugs.

Deaths from Fentanyl overdoses started getting recognition in 2002 when people died after chewing the patches. Fentanyl has been around since 1959 when it was called Sublimaze and was used as an anesthetic agent. In the mid-1990’s the drug was produced in slow-release transdermal patches for pain relief. That’s when both the “high” and dangers of the drug were discovered. People may remember the drug under the street name “China White” thought to be a heroin and fentanyl combination which has been associated with many deaths. Fentanyl has been researched as a weapon by the U.S. military and believed to be put into use in a gas form by Russian commandos in 2002 to knock out Chechen terrorists who had taken 750 people as hostages. The un-named gas killed 117 of the hostages.

The biggest cluster of Fentanyl deaths in the U.S. occurred between 2005 and 2007 around Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia when an illicit lab in Mexico was producing a fentanyl power used to cut heroin. Currently the illegal fentanyl which is entering into the market is nicknamed: greenies; green beans and green monsters. The drug is stamped as OxyContin and is being sold at a lower price than Oxy on the street, but packing a much higher potential for overdose. Investigators in both the U.S. and Canada have discovered multiple sources of the drug ranging from Mexico, Turkey, China and illicit labs run by “Breaking Bad” chemists and motorcycle gangs in the U.S. and Canada. Coupled with the increase in prescriptions for high-dose painkillers, the availability of legally manufactured and illicit fentanyl has skyrocketed.

A study in the journal, Pain, found that the misuse of prescription pain medications runs around 25% and one in ten medical users will end up addicted. As the pressure increases on manufacturers to make drugs tamper resistant to control abuse through crushing, snorting or injecting the drug, users are shifting to drugs like Fentanyl in patch form or illicitly manufactured pills which are easily converted into a form to snort or inject. There’s even a market for recycled patches which can retain up to 90% of their potency.

Efforts are underway in the U.S. and Canada to control access to prescription opiates through regulation. One Canadian pharmacy has instituted a plan to only refill prescriptions for Fentanyl patches when the person turns in the same number of used patches. Unfortunately, dummy patches were discovered as addicts worked to get around restrictions and controls. We have a real problem on our hands which is not restricted to the sub-culture of drug users. As the research studies point out, prescription opiate users run a high risk of drug abuse and addiction. The person with an addiction to opiates is going to work to obtain the drugs through any means available. They may think they’re buying Oxy on the street, but they could be ending up with illicitly made Fentanyl. Addiction to opiates will also bring many people to using heroin, possibly heroin cut with Fentanyl. One addict, now in recovery, described Fentanyl: “I fell back in my seat and I fell in love. It was the best high I ever had”. Within a year he was going through two patches a day-each designed for 72 hours of steady pain relief, by chewing the patches or scraping out the gel to smoke or inject. After multiple overdoses and the death of four friends from Fentanyl he decided to stop. Six years later he is on Methadone, trying to taper down his dose and reconstruct his life. On a daily basis he fights the cravings to use.

Dealing with the disease of addiction is not something which can be done alone. Professional help and ongoing support is needed. If you or someone you love needs help to stop using drugs, take the first step and find professional help. At Brookhaven, we are here to reach out a hand to help you. Grab it!

To read about the Fentanyl problem in Canada click here to read a recent story in Maclean’s.

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