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The USA’s 2022 fentanyl epidemic

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The USA’s 2022 Fentanyl Epidemic: Headlines have been full of reports on COVID-related fatalities, but there’s something as contagious that’s responsible for even more deaths in the US: the fentanyl epidemic.

In 2021 alone, 41,587 people aged 18 to 45 died due to fentanyl overdose. In the same time period, and for the same age group, COVID-19 was responsible for just over half as many deaths. Taken as a snapshot, that looks bad enough; if you consider the trend, though, it’s worse. Opioid overdoses, and especially fentanyl overdoses, have risen rapidly in the last few years, and they show no signs of slowing down.

Experts are obviously anxious to find out what’s causing this trend; in order to fix the problem, they have to understand it. It’s pretty clear that the pandemic is at least partly responsible, as it’s wiped out most community support networks. Between uncertainty about the future, loneliness, and having no other options, many people increased (or began) their drug use at some point in 2020.

How fentanyl fits into opioid-related fatalities

One thing that has experts especially worried is the way fentanyl use has changed in the last couple of years. Consider this statistic: out of the 100,000+ people who died after a drug overdose last year, more than half of them used fentanyl in combination with some other drug (based on information from the CDC). This is a change from the norm, as the majority of overdose deaths before 2021 involved just one type of drug. Due to this change, the last couple of years are being called the opioid epidemic’s “fourth wave”.

With so many different types and classes of illicit drugs, you’d expect to see a mix of them when looking more closely at the 100,000 drug-related deaths from last year. While cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine still figure heavily in the death toll, fentanyl keeps popping up in ever-increasing numbers – and it shows no sign of slowing down. Given this trend, it’s no wonder that health officials, doctors, and addiction researchers alike are calling for concrete measures to be taken.

Facts about fentanyl

Public awareness about fentanyl is growing, but not many people know exactly how potent – and deadly – this drug can be.

  • When people buy fake Percocet, Oxycontin, or other drugs online, those pills often contain dangerous levels of fentanyl
  • It’s possible to die after consuming as little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl
  • Fentanyl started out as a legitimate prescription painkiller; however, it quickly gained popularity as an illegal drug due to its potency
  • Fentanyl is (on average) 100 times more powerful than morphine, and 50 times more powerful than heroin

Factors that drive fentanyl use

Even though experts can see the trends, they haven’t yet nailed down what’s causing those trends. For example, do people know that they’re consuming fentanyl and they just don’t care, or are they accidentally overdosing on drugs that were mixed with fentanyl by distributors or dealers? There’s also the possibility that nobody intended to put fentanyl in some of these mixtures; it’s just that the substance wasn’t properly cleaned from work surfaces or gloves, and that’s how it made its way into other illicit drugs. Then there are “hot spots”, chunks of unmixed fentanyl that weren’t properly incorporated with whatever drug it was combined with. Even if someone “knows what they’re doing” and takes what they think is a safe dose, a hot spot could easily result in accidental death.

While we still don’t know for sure, the reality is probably a combination of the scenarios above. Drug users have sought out fentanyl for decades before this, and it’s unlikely that they’ve all stopped after realized the dangers associated with the drug. On the manufacturing and distribution side, there’s a strong incentive to “dilute” other drugs with fentanyl because of how cheap it is. Between one thing and another, the situation is quite complicated.

What’s being done to slow down the rate of fentanyl-related deaths?

At the government level, practical solutions (and funds) have been slow to materialize; the issue has turned out to be polarizing, and some politicians are hesitant to commit career suicide by supporting unpopular legislation. For example, experts are calling for drug users to be provided with free fentanyl test strips and clean needles; the efficacy of these measures has been proven time and again. Unfortunately, opposers say that this is just enabling drug use, and political figures don’t want to be associated with that position.

An even more controversial (and effective) approach is the option to use a safe injection site. These are centres where drug users can inject themselves under staff supervision; the staff are there to hand out test strips and needles, and in the event of an overdose, are trained to administer naxolone. While these sites can drastically reduce the numbers of overdose deaths, the idea has attracted a lot of opposition, and not much financial support.

Resources for opioid addiction

If you’re looking for general information, an addiction helpline, a treatment centre, or anything else related to addiction and recovery, check out the resources below.

  • Lincoln Recovery – addiction recovery centre (Illinois), offering recovery helplines, support groups for veterans, science-based therapies, and customized treatment options.
  • Find Addiction Rehabs – a website with testimonies from former addicts (all of whom are in recovery), and a treatment center directory.
  • Opiate Addiction & Treatment Resource – an online resource that provides information on treatment options, as well as current information on addiction, dependence, and opioids.
  • Amethyst Recovery Centre – a recovery centre for those struggling with addiction, with a round-the-clock helpline, expansive online resources, and guides for spouses, teens, and parents of people battling drug use.

Whether you’re considering the opioid epidemic from an individual perspective or a nationwide perspective, it’s clear that something needs to be done quickly. Ever since the start of the pandemic, community outreach networks have deteriorated, leaving many people without practical resources to help with their addiction. If we can start by putting that support system back together, maybe the number of fentanyl-related fatalities will finally begin to drop.




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