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What is fentanyl and why is the drug so dangerous in the US?

There is a fentanyl crisis taking place in the US, with the number of overdose deaths from the drug continuing to rise. Why is this opioid so dangerous?

SENSITIVE MATERIAL. THIS IMAGE MAY OFFEND OR DISTURB   There is a fentanyl crisis taking place in the US, with the number of overdose deaths from the drug continuing to rise. Why is this opioid so dangerous?
SHANNON STAPLETONREUTERS

The Senate recently passed a resolution designating August 21, 2023 as Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day. This act shows that the problems brought about by the drug have reached alarming proportions, enough for legislators to assign a day to remind people of its dangers.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug that is primarily used as a powerful painkiller and anesthetic. It belongs to the class of drugs known as opioids, which also includes substances like heroin and morphine. Fentanyl is estimated to be 100 times more potent than morphine and approximately 50 times more powerful than pharmaceutical-grade heroin.

It was initially developed in the 1960s for medical use, particularly for managing severe pain associated with surgeries or chronic conditions like cancer. It can be administered in various forms, such as patches, lozenges, nasal sprays, and injectables. Many people seek fentanyl because it produces effects such as relaxation, euphoria, pain relief, and sedation.

Despite its effectiveness in managing pain, fentanyl has also gained notoriety for its potential for abuse and overdose. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is often mixed by drug dealers with other substances like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. It has also been identified in counterfeit prescription pills, mimicking pharmaceutical drugs such as oxycodone.

Why is fentanyl so dangerous?

Because of the ease with which fentanyl is mixed with other drugs, it has been a significant factor in the opioid overdose crisis in recent years. The extremely high potency of fentanyl makes it challenging to dose safely, leading to an increased risk of fatal overdoses.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl can be snorted, smoked, taken orally as a pill or tablet, or spiked onto blotter paper and patches.

Given its potential for misuse and the dangers associated with non-medical use, fentanyl is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance in the United States. This means it is tightly regulated due to its high potential for abuse and severe physical or psychological dependence.

Cheap, illegally made fentanyl

Most of the recent cases of fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths are linked to illegally made fentanyl, which is cheap to manufacture. It is often added to other drugs because of its great potency. This makes substances cheaper, more addictive, more powerful, and therefore, more dangerous.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is almost impossible to tell if drugs have been laced with fentanyl. This contributes to the danger because people could be unaware they are taking the drug, which can be deadly even in small doses. CDC figures indicate that over 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

The CDC says more than 100,000 people in the US died of drug overdoses and drug poisonings in the 12-month period ending in January 2022. A shocking 67% percent of those deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

The DEA for its part says that this drug is involved in more deaths of Americans under the age of 50 than any other cause of death, including heart disease, cancer, and homicide.