|Lethal doses of heroin and fentanyl|
(New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab photo)
Of the more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, "traditional opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin and Percocet, were involved in about 14,400 overdose deaths in 2016, and heroin was involved in more than 15,400. Non-methadone synthetic opioids like fentanyl, meanwhile, were linked to more than 20,100 overdose deaths. Remaining overdose deaths involved other drugs, such as cocaine (which also increased)," Lopez reports.
|Vox graphic. Click to enlarge.|
The opioid epidemic began mostly after patients became addicted to legal prescriptions for painkillers. But when the government cracked down on such prescriptions, many addicted patients turned to heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Fentanyl is used legally as an anesthetic or for chronic pain management, but is also often illegally manufactured and mixed with other drugs.
Fentanyl is particularly dangerous because it's cheap, identical in appearance to heroin, and powerful--up to 100 times more potent than morphine, and many times stronger than heroin.
"Drugs users generally don’t know when their heroin is laced with fentanyl, so when they inject their usual quantity of heroin, they can inadvertently take a deadly dose of the substance. In addition, while dealers try to include fentanyl to improve potency, their measuring equipment usually isn’t fine-tuned enough to ensure they stay below the levels that could cause users to overdose. Plus, the fentanyl sold on the street is almost always made in a clandestine lab; it is less pure than the pharmaceutical version and thus its effect on the body can be more unpredictable," Allison Bond reports for Stat News.