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How Fentanyl Helped Set New Records for Drug Overdose Deaths in 2021

1 month ago

1923  0
Posted on Apr 13, 2022, 3 a.m.

Most people were worried that illicit drug use would worsen during the COVID-19 shutdowns. The 2020 statistics for drug overdose and deaths seemed to confirm this worry. But as 2020 came and went, we entered 2021 with a new sense of optimism and hoped things would get better. Unfortunately, drug overdose deaths in 2021 turned out to be the highest ever in recent history. What’s worse, many of these deaths can be pointed to a single source: fentanyl.

When Record-Breaking Is Bad News

Just how bad are the statistics for fentanyl? Take it from the title of a recent article: Fentanyl Now the Leading Cause of Death for Adults Ages 18 to 45. To be clear, that title is not an exaggeration, either. This data obtained from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that these startling rates have caused fentanyl to pass COVID-19 deaths, suicides, and even automobile accidents. In the first month of 2021, four times as many people died from drug overdose than from homicides, with almost 68% attributed to opioids. For comparison, cocaine ranked second at 21%. In other words, a proper adjective to describe fentanyl is this: deadly. 

While the overdose death rates due to fentanyl are not being experienced in all 50 states, these numbers don’t seem to be tied directly to a certain region or voting record. When compared to the highest six-month total in 2020, the first six months of 2021 saw overdose deaths increase as high as 36% in Alaska, with Oregon and Kansas also hovering above 30%. In total, 35 out of 50 states in the U.S. saw an increase ranging from 1% to 36%. These overdose rates include drug overdoses of all types, but the data for each state reveals that a large percentage is attributed to opioid use—specifically synthetic opioids like fentanyl. 

The American Medical Association (AMA) compiled all the reporting over 2021 for all 50 and the District of Columbia and concluded that the nation's overdose epidemic continues to worsen, with the prevailing theme that “the epidemic now is driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often in combination or in adulterated forms.” While fentanyl is not the only drug responsible for these overdose rates, it’s certainly leading the way as a record-breaker.

Potent and Profitable

How did fentanyl rise to the top of this overdose problem? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Actiq, a fentanyl drug, for cancer breakthrough pain in 1998. Throughout the years, fentanyl has been used medically to treat chronic pain in pill and patch forms. Fentanyl is still used today to treat cancer patients, but its use has expanded to post-surgery pain, nerve damage, and other major injuries. Fentanyl interferes with the opioid receptors that send pain messages throughout the body, and it does so quite powerfully. Fentanyl is one of the most potent opioids available, ranging from 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and 80 times stronger than heroin. 

This explains why fentanyl is such a leading threat in the conversation of overdose deaths. With its high potency, overdose is extremely easy to occur at fatal levels. In fact, as little as 2 mg of fentanyl is considered a lethal dose. However, this is only part of the equation. Fentanyl is dangerous enough as a drug taken on purpose, either by prescription or illicitly, but unfortunately, that is not always the circumstance associated with fentanyl overdose deaths. In addition to people using fentanyl recreationally, large numbers of people take fentanyl unknowingly. This happens because fentanyl has become the drug of choice as a cutting agent for dealers that sell heroin or other opioids. However, traces of fentanyl have been found in drugs ranging from opioids to stimulants like cocaine and even unsuspecting drugs like marijuana

The reasons why dealers are doing this are not entirely clear. With all the reporting of fentanyl deaths in recent years, it is unlikely they are unaware of fentanyl’s dangers. But since fentanyl is entirely synthetic, highly potent, and highly addictive, it becomes a drug where potency carries a high potential for profits. Regardless of the risks involved for users, fentanyl is effective job security for suppliers.

One Way to Beat the Statistics

Using fentanyl just one time can result in an addiction, which is good news for dealers but bad news for users. The result is either experimenting with higher doses to support an addiction or experiencing the withdrawal symptoms of a highly addictive drug. The potential of using higher doses of fentanyl is a deadly choice because of how lethal the drug is on its own. Because the drug suppresses the body’s respiratory system, breathing complications can be experienced as well.

Unfortunately, the decision to increase the dosage of fentanyl is not entirely up to drug users, even if they are not knowingly using fentanyl. As drugs are continually being laced with fentanyl illicitly, there are no indications of how much fentanyl is present from one pill or bag to the next or whether that pill or bag contains a lethal dose of fentanyl. This means the one way to beat the deadly statistics of fentanyl is to avoid all illicit drug use. With the increase in drug cutting, there is no way to know whether any street drug is safe. Even with the availability of opioid reversal drugs, users might not know they have experienced a fentanyl overdose until it’s too late. If you use illicit drugs of any kind, it’s vital to know that this deadly drug is making its way into every corner of the street drug market, and it’s leaving a path of destruction across the country.

This article was written for WHN by Kevin Morris from the Delphi Behavioral Health Group, a dedicated family of facilities committed to offering individualized treatment for all levels of addiction working to treat it at its core to provide those suffering with the tools to start a journey of long-lasting recovery.

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.

Content may be edited for style and length.

Materials provided by:

Maine Wire. (2022, April 7). Fentanyl Now the Leading Cause of Death for Adults Ages 18 to 45. Retrieved https://www.themainewire.com/2022/04/fentanyl-now-the-leading-cause-of-death-for-adults-ages-18-to-45/

National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. (n.d.). Drug Overdose Death Rates. Retrieved https://drugabusestatistics.org/drug-overdose-deaths/

The Commonwealth Fund. (2022, Feb 7). Overdose Deaths Surged in the First Half of 2021, Underscoring Urgent Need for Action. Retrieved https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2022/overdose-deaths-surged-first-half-2021-underscoring-urgent-need-action

American Medical Association. (2022, Feb 15). Issue Brief: Nation’s Drug-related Overdose and Death Epidemic Continues to Worsen. Retrieved https://www.ama-assn.org/system/files/issue-brief-increases-in-opioid-related-overdose.pdf

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Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). What Amount of Fentanyl Causes an Overdose? (Plus Treatment Help) Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/opioids/fentanyl/overdose/

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Understanding Drug Cutting – What Is It and Why Does it Happen? Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/drug-cutting/

WNDU News. (2022, Feb 16). Elkhart Fire Issue Warning After Fentanyl Laced Marijuana Leads to Overdoses. Retrieved https://www.wndu.com/2022/02/16/elkhart-fire-issue-warning-after-marijuana-laced-fentanyl-leads-overdoses/

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Fentanyl Withdrawal: What Timeline Should You Expect? Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/opioids/fentanyl/withdrawal/

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). What Are the Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Fentanyl Use? Retrieved https://delphihealthgroup.com/opioids/fentanyl/short-long-effects/

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