The United States is in the middle of a significant fentanyl crisis. Illicit fentanyl use is on the rise, as are overdoses and deaths from fentanyl use. What can we do to alleviate this crisis?
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic (human-made) opioid typically used to manage severe pain. It’s a newish drug, created by a Belgian physician in 1960 and approved for use as an anesthetic in 1972. It can come in tablets, patches, sprays, and lollipop-like lozenges.
Fentanyl is much more powerful than other opioids, such as morphine or heroin. Fentanyl can produce feelings of euphoria similar to heroin but also comes with some very serious side effects. The drug can cause reduced blood pressure, sedation, dizziness, respiratory depression, and death—even in relatively small doses. Because fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin, it only takes about 5 milligrams of the drug to overdose.
In spite of these risks, pharmaceutical fentanyl has many legitimate medical uses, although it’s typically reserved for patients who experience powerful or chronic pain that is not easily relieved by other opioids. Patients who benefit from medical fentanyl usually have taken some other type of opioid first and been dissatisfied by the results.
At our Valley Medical and Wellness clinics, we like to reserve fentanyl use for intense acute pain, as it works more effectively if a patient needs to be hospitalized or have surgery.
How Serious is the Problem?
The problem with fentanyl is its widespread availability on the streets. Illicit fentanyl is a white powder than can be pressed into counterfeit prescription pills. In recent years, drug traffickers have begun mixing illicit fentanyl with other street drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. In many instances, drug users have no idea that fentanyl has been added to another substance, dramatically increasing the risk factor.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States has the world’s highest rate of opioid-involved deaths. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, 2022, 83,000 of the total 100,000 overdose deaths in this country involved opioids. Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49.
In addition to this devastating loss of life, the overdose crisis is responsible for an estimated $1 trillion in annual costs to the U.S. health care and criminal justice systems. It is a crisis that affects all American communities, businesses, and families.
Combating the Crisis: A Multi-Level Approach
How can we as individuals and a society combat the increasingly deadly fentanyl crisis? The solution involves a combination of governmental, systemic, and individual actions.
At the macro level, the government is working hard to slow the flow of illicit fentanyl into the country. Most fentanyl comes into the U.S. via Mexico, so concentrating efforts at all points of entry (including via the mail) can have a significant effect.
The U.S. government must also work with Mexico, China (which supplies much of the raw materials used to create fentanyl), and other countries to discourage fentanyl production on a global basis. The goal is to target key actors and dry up the global fentanyl supply chain before the drug reaches the United States.
Local, state, and federal governments can also develop diversion programs to educate users about the dangers of fentanyl and discourage illicit fentanyl use. Individuals with often-untreated substance abuse disorders can be steered toward treatment programs instead of falling into the criminal justice program.
To safeguard against deadly fentanyl overdoses, governments and other institutions should increase the availability of and access to Narcan. Narcan is a nasal spray used to counteract the effects of an opioid overdose. Its effects are almost immediate and the widespread use of Narcan can dramatically reduce the number of fentanyl and other opioid-related deaths.
Finally, we as a society must increase access to fentanyl testing and medication-assisted treatment for fentanyl addiction. Transitioning a patient from fentanyl to less-harmful opioids, such as buprenorphine, can reduce the risk to patients and make their addiction issues more manageable.
How Valley Medical is Fighting the Fentanyl Crisis
Valley Medical Laboratory is at the forefront of fighting the fentanyl crisis. We include testing for fentanyl in the drug tests we offer to our treatment center partners so we can closely track use of this illicit substance. Our testing can detect fentanyl use of which patients themselves might not be aware so that you can better tailor your treatment plans.
We also offer personalized medication-assisted treatment for fentanyl and other opioid use disorders at our Valley Medical and Wellness clinics. Patients who come to our clinics for treatment can be transitioned off fentanyl and onto safer medication, then regularly tested for compliance.
The key is for all parties involved to take the fentanyl crisis seriously and work at all key points to reduce access and use of this deadly illicit drug. At Valley Medical, we’re doing our part to help those suffering from fentanyl use and provide appropriate treatment moving forward.