Fentanyl surpasses heroin as cause of most overdose deaths in the US

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Fentanyl is the drug most frequently involved in overdose deaths in the US, a recent Center  for Disease Control and Prevention report has shown. The report, released December 12, analysed the causes of death from drug overdoses in the US from 2011-2016, with deaths related to fentanyl growing significantly each year, seeing the opioid surpass heroin and cocaine in number of overdose deaths.

In over two-thirds of overdose deaths involving fentanyl, one or more other drugs was also present. This is due to fentanyl being used as a cutting agent- some users may think they are using pure heroin or cocaine, but it is laced with fentanyl to increase the potency.

This and other recent reports are supported by government and health officials expressing concern about the rise in fentanyl and other drug overdose deaths. Fentanyl related deaths in the US have risen from around 1,600 in 2011 to over 18,000 (out of a total of 63,000) in 2016, the last year on which the report had full statistics. This coincides with the rate of drug overdose deaths tripling in the US between 1999 and 2016 to 19.8 per 100,000 people leading to the deaths, in the most recent estimate, of 70,000 Americans in 2017. The rate of overdose deaths in 2017 is higher than gun violence, HIV or car crash deaths at their peak.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is used medically in the treatment of acute and chronic pain, and is typically dosed in tablets, patches or intravenously. It is 80-100 times more potent than morphine, and produces an intense, short term high and feelings of euphoria, which is why it is taken recreationally as an illicit substance. The dosage and potency of fentanyl can be difficult to determine,  and when combined with its effects as a respiratory depressant, is believed to contribute to the deaths.

US officials believe that China is the source of large portion of fentanyl entering America, commonly via the mail. This is also noted by European drug monitoring agency, who report that the “highly potent substances” that are fentanyl and other synthetic opioids “appear to…originate from companies based in China.” In response, China has announced it will add all “all fentanyl-like substances” to its controlled substance list, but has called for patience, as “the relevant work is yet to be started.”

Nan Fife, counsellor at the Permanent Mission of the United States to the UN, has said that the misuse of synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl is a “drug crisis of devastating proportions.” Assistant Secretary of State Kirsten Madison described the situation as the most “severe drug crisis” the US has ever faced.

Concerns about the misuse of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids is also increasing worldwide, with global deaths directly caused by drugs use increased by 60% from 2000 to 2015.  Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Yury Fedotov, has said that the “non -medical use of prescription drugs has reached epidemic proportions in parts of the world.”

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