Thursday, May 03, 2018

Fentanyl drives increasing OD deaths, new study finds

Lethal doses of heroin and fentanyl
(Getty Images photo by Chip Somodevilla)
"In the United States, more people are dying because of synthetic drugs like fentanyl than because of heroin or prescribed painkillers," Joseph Frankel reports for The Atlantic. "While, to many, the opioid crisis has been synonymous with heroin and prescription pills, a report published Tuesday in JAMA Psychiatry builds the case that the class of synthetic drug is increasingly making its way into other drugs like cocaine and leading to overdoses. From 2010 to 2016, more and more overdose deaths have been found to be caused, at least in part, by drugs like fentanyl."

Scientists have known that synthetic opioids like fentanyl now cause more opioid deaths than heroin, but the new study emphasizes that fentanyl is killing people who unwittingly consumed it while seeking other drugs like cocaine or Xanax. Almost one-third of overdose deaths from benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Valium in 2016 also involved a synthetic opioid. About half of the 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016 were fentanyl-related, according to Wilson Compton, one of the study's authors.

Why is fentanyl causing so much damage? It's much stronger than heroin, so drug dealers sometimes mix a tiny bit of fentanyl into heroin so they can stretch the supply and sell it to more people while producing the same high. Dealers also sometimes mix systemic depressants like fentanyl with uppers like cocaine to decrease undesirable side-effects; because the side-effects are mitigated, users may unknowingly take a lethal dose.

Traci Green, an epidemiologist at Brown University, told Frankel that in order to get to the root of the fentanyl problem, "the public needs better data, more transparent data, and more consistent data."

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