Since 1999, deaths from drug overdoses have more than quadrupled. In 2016, the numbers skyrocketed, rising eleven percent from the previous year, resulting in over 64,000 recorded deaths. By comparison, the number of people who died in car crashes last year was 37,757. Gun deaths, including homicide and suicide, contributed a total of 36,252 lives lost. The primary drugs linked with overdose fall into three main categories: opioids (which include heroin, painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and fentanyl as well as methadone, which is used to treat heroin addiction); benzodiazepines (like alprazolam, which is used to treat anxiety, often under the brand name Xanax, as well as other drugs that treat depression, insomnia, and nausea, among other conditions); and stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. Though all of these drugs contribute to this issue, overdose due to prescription opioids claim the most lives each year.
In the 1990s, drugs such as morphine, Oxycontin and fentanyl were only prescribed to people with pain due to injuries such as broken bones or cancer. By the mid 2000s, things had changed, when physicians discovered that opioids can be used to treat chronic pain and began widely prescribing Oxycontin. Because of the number of painkillers being prescribed, opioids were filling the medicine cabinets of many homes. This led to teens experimenting with these drugs and millions of pills landing in the wrong hands.
By the the time the medical community had become aware of the damages of these prescription opioids, thousands of people were already addicted一and the withdrawal symptoms were unbearable. As Juurlink, an internal medicine physician, remarked, "I can't tell you how many people I've looked after over the years who say, 'I've tried quitting, I just can't do it.' Imagine the worst flu you've ever had, multiply it by 20, and you are miserable," referring to the symptoms that come with withdrawal.
Desperate, and in search of an opioid that was easily obtainable, people turned to the streets, where major drug deals were taking place. Heroin was the most commonly bought and sold drug, until the discovery of fentanyl and its popularity within the drug community. Because fentanyl is both significantly cheaper and more potent than heroin, drug dealers began adding it to the heroin, creating greater satisfaction for the customer and increasing the dealers’ profits. Someone who thinks they are using heroin could, in fact, be using a mix of heroin and fentanyl, or pure fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic (human-made) opioid, which acts on the same receptor in the brain as morphine, Oxycodone, and heroin. What people do not often realize is that fentanyl is far more potent than these other drugs. It is 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine, meaning even a small dosage can be deadly. It only takes approximately 2 mg of fentanyl to kill an individual. That is the equivalent to a couple grains of sand.
In 2016 the number of overdoses due to fentanyl overtook all other prescription painkillers, including heroin, killing over 20,000 people. Communities have reported strains on their budgets as a result of the amount of money and resources being put toward police departments and medical facilities. This is an epidemic, spreading throughout the country, taking it’s terrible toll on communities of all cultures, colors, and ages.