When we talk about the opioid crisis, the conversation normally focuses around heroin. You may not have ever heard of the drug fentanyl before. Despite the lack of conversation, fentanyl was named the top killer drug in Pennsylvania earlier this year. It is time to talk about exactly what the drug is, where it comes from, and why it is killing so many of our people.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a powerful painkiller available by prescription. Unlike heroin, it is a synthetic opiate. It is traditionally manufactured in medical facilities; however, with its growing popularity, we increasingly see fentanyl that has been created in clandestine laboratories.
Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, and several times more potent than heroin. The photograph above shows a comparison between a lethal dose of heroin and a lethal dose of fentanyl. The difference is staggering- 30mg of heroin can kill an adult male while only 3mg of fentanyl can do the same.
Fentanyl was first introduced into the illegal drug market as a substance used to cut heroin. Because of its potency, the drug can be especially deadly when unknowingly ingested. Even a small amount of heroin cut with fentanyl can lead to an overdose.
Its potency is appealing to users, who can feel the same or an even more intense high by consuming less. Because of this, fentanyl is now also openly sold by distributors. The mass consumption of this drug has had disastrous consequences: it was identified as the leading drug in 52% of Pennsylvania’s overdoses in 2016.
Fentanyl overdoses have increased by 130% between 2015 and 2016. Out of this group, the 15-24 year old age bracket has suffered the most with a 380% increase in fentanyl overdoses during the same time period. Let’s put this into perspective- in 2016, fentanyl took the lives of roughly 13 people in Pennsylvania per day.
This increase in fatalities can be seen in Centre County as well. In 2013, there were 13 drug-related deaths; in 2014 and 2015, there were 17; in 2016, there were 21. By February 2017, there were already five drug-related deaths reported in Centre County. According to county criminal justice planner, Gene Laurie, “We are right in the middle of an epidemic”.
The proliferation of fentanyl comes with an added risk: the drug can be absorbed through the skin and incidental contact. This is a concern for people of the community who may unknowingly handle the substance, and for law enforcement officials. One thing is clear: we need to get this drug off of the streets.
In October, Governor Wolf announced that Pennsylvania would allocate $5 million of its budget to a bulk purchase of Narcan, an injection used reverse opioid overdoses. Additionally, he discussed a plan to supply first responders with 120,000 doses of Naloxone, another overdose antidote. Unlike Narcan, medical training is not required to administer Naloxone. Fentanyl overdoses can be treated with Narcan and Naloxone; however, because of the drug’s potency, it can take several doses.
Expanded access to overdose reversal medication would greatly benefit those who suffer from opiate addictions and anyone who may accidentally come in contact with fentanyl. Though it may be a step in the right direction, this plan fails to address prevention.
Law enforcement officials find themselves in a tough situation. The epidemic cannot be cured by punishment alone, and limited resources prevent suitable treatment options for everyone. Until government figures and community members are able to find a solution, police officers are forced to make arrests to achieve the small goal of getting any amount of fentanyl off of the streets.
If you or a loved one suffers from addiction, please use these resources to consider treatment options.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a drug crime, contact our attorneys at Rehmeyer & Allatt for a free consultation.