There is no doubt that the opioid crisis is one of the worst drug epidemics to ever sweep the country, killing almost 50,000 people last year alone. For many now struggling with addiction, the gateway to their current plight were prescription drugs that led them to harder street drugs when their prescription ran out or they could no longer find pharmaceuticals on the street.
Congress, rightfully so, has dedicated significant time and energy towards curtailing the over-prescription of these drugs and investigating the bad actors who made this wave of narcotics possible. By and large they have done a good job. Opioid prescriptions have declined by nearly 30 percent and are trending downwards. Here in Colorado the State legislature has also taken action, passing Senate Bill 22 that limits the number of pain pills health care providers can prescribe to an initial 7-day period. But opioid related deaths continue to climb. There is a “stealth killer” that must be identified and addressed as the new Congress comes to Washington.
The culprit is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50-100x stronger than heroin. New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data confirms that it is now the deadliest drug in America after a staggering increase in overdose fatalities over the last few years. In Colorado, a 53.8 percent increase in synthetic opioid overdoses occurred in just a one-year period. Nationally the numbers were equally concerning. From 2013 through 2016 alone, the rate of overdoses involving the drug skyrocketed by 113 percent a year helping to push the total number the drug overdoses up 54 percent over a five-year period.
The shift started in 2011 when fentanyl was responsible for a mere 4 percent of drug fatalities and the prescription opioid oxycodone was the most commonly involved drug in overdoses, representing 13 percent of all drug fatalities. As prescription drugs became scarcer due to revised prescribing practices and Congressional crackdowns on illicit actors, addicts turned to cheaper and stronger synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. As a result nearly 29 percent of all drug overdose deaths are now due to this deadly synthetic opioid.
This poison is working its way into the system in a number of different ways. In order to give their users a stronger “high” many drug dealers are lacing their product with fentanyl. The drug has been found in almost every illicit street drug from heroin to cocaine. In other cases drug dealers are creating counterfeit pills that are made to look like legitimate prescription pills but are in fact dangerous combinations of heroin and synthetic opioids.
In either case the result is a user that is expecting one drug and getting something else in an unknown quantity. Given that the tiniest trace of fentanyl can be deadly (about 2 milligrams, or 4 grains of salt is enough to kill) it’s easy to see why the CDC numbers have borne out these deadly results.
Just as concerning are the actors responsible for flooding our streets with this drug. Much of the fentanyl in America today is manufactured in Chinese laboratories and smuggled into America by Mexican cartels that use their existing smuggling routes to move a more potent and profitable product. While the U.S grapples with an opioid crisis these bad actors see a business opportunity, wrongfully selling illegal drugs as legitimate medicines and further escalating American drug addiction. If we are going to beat this addiction crisis Congress must place greater scrutiny on stemming the flow of these drugs across our border.
As the former Executive Director of a drug and alcohol recovery program, I have seen first hand the damage that addiction can do to individuals and the lives of those around them. Part of the reason why this crisis is so bad is the lack of treatment options for those suffering from addiction. A mere 10.6 percent of children and adults who need treatment for substance abuse receive the care they need, an unacceptably low number that must be addressed if we will be successful in reining this crisis in. But removing the temptation of cheap and readily available synthetic opioids will also go a long way towards ending this epidemic.
Congress has demonstrated an interest in reining in the opioid crisis but has so far overlooked the critical issue of synthetic opioids. If we are to truly kick this crisis, they should make it a priority to investigate this pressing issue early in the new session and help increase public awareness of the dangers of fentanyl. All of us have a role to play in combatting this “stealth killer”, and we must take action today.
Ken Summers is a former member of the Attorney General’s Drug Trend and Response Task Force and the former chair of the Health Committee in the Colorado House of Representatives.