Fentanyl is now the most deadly drug in America.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services national Vital Statistics System released figures earlier this month showing that the synthetic opioid, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin, is responsible for more overdose deaths than any other drug.
According to the report, oxycodone ranked first in 2011. That was replaced by heroin from 2012 through 2015. However, in 2016—the year the most recent figures are available—fentanyl moved to the top. In 2016, almost one third (29 percent) of overdose deaths “mentioned involvement of fentanyl.”
The drug is a major problem in West Virginia. The Gazette-Mail’s Eric Eyre—who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the opioid crisis—reported earlier this year that an increase in fentanyl use has fueled a persistent rise in overdose deaths. More than 1,000 West Virginians died from overdoses last year, the most ever.
West Virginia saw firsthand just how dangerous the drug can be. In Huntington, 26 people overdosed in one day in August, 2016 on heroin laced with fentanyl and carfentanyl, which is an analogue of fentanyl that is even more powerful.
Fentanyl has a legitimate medical use. It provides some relief to patients with severe pain, such as people suffering from cancer or following major surgery. However, it is highly addictive and tightly regulated. Most of the fentanyl entering the illicit drug trade here comes from China.
President Trump announced earlier this month after meeting with President Xi Jinping that China had agreed to crack down on the shipments by designating fentanyl as a controlled substance. Trump called the pledge “a wonderful humanitarian gesture.”
However, getting control of China’s fentanyl shipments is not a simple matter. John Collins, executive director of the International Drug Policy Unit at the London School of Economics, told the New York Times “Fentanyl’s chemical structure and those of related analogues can be modified to create similar yet distinct substances, so new versions can be concocted quickly.”
China imposes the death penalty for drug dealers, but the profit motive is powerful. As Channel News Asia reported, “It has become a booming business for clandestine chemical labs in China, where a single kilogram of fentanyl… (can turn) a less than $10,000 investment into a half a million dollars.”
State and community leaders have stepped up their efforts significantly to try to curb the opioid epidemic. In some of the hardest hit areas quick response teams try to get addicts into treatment following an overdose, and there is evidence that’s working.
However, as is frequently the case with the drug war, those on the front lines often feel as though it’s a “whack-a-mole” battle—concentrate on one drug and another pops up. Right now, the focus is on fentanyl, which just happens to be the most powerful and dangerous drug yet to hit the streets.