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The Killer You've Never Heard Of

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Have you ever heard of a drug so dangerous that a dose the size of a few grains of salt can be fatal? With drug-overdose deaths on the rise, many people point their finger at heroin as the cause. Recent discoveries show that there may be another deadly drug wreaking havoc across the country. The culprit is fentanyl, a prescription painkiller significantly more powerful than heroin and morphine. The real danger is that unsuspecting addicts are abusing fentanyl thinking it is heroin, with fatal results. Cheap, addictive, and dangerous, fentanyl is the deadliest drug you've probably never even heard of.

What is Fentanyl?

A lethal cousin to heroin, fentanyl is alleged to be 50 times more powerful than heroin and over 100 times more powerful morphine. It is a synthetic painkiller that has been around for forty years but has just recently become a popular choice for drug dealers and drug addicts. In 2015, doctors wrote over 6.6 million legal fentanyl prescriptions in the U.S, although these prescriptions are not the main concern for addiction professionals. The danger with fentanyl is that it looks exactly like heroin yet is substantially more dangerous.

Fentanyl doses are extremely small (Pictured Above)

Previously an uncommon street drug, international drug manufacturers are producing fentanyl at an alarming rate for cheap prices. It is becoming cheaper for drug dealers to sell fentanyl than heroin and they are increasingly mixing the two drugs to cut costs. Just how popular has fentanyl become? “For the cartels, it’s their drug of choice,” Maura Healey, the Attorney General of Massachusetts said, “They have figured out a way to make fentanyl more cheaply and easily than heroin and are manufacturing it at a record pace.” This statement is backed up by the huge spread of fentanyl seizures and drug busts in recent years. Nationally, the total number of fentanyl drug seizures spiked from 618 in 2012 to 4,500 in 2014, an 800 percent increase.

Some of the states most affected include: Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Florida. In one seizure last year, law enforcement officers in Lawrence, Massachusetts confiscated 33 pounds of fentanyl and heroin with a street value of $2.2 million. In January, the police seized 66 pounds of fentanyl-laced heroin, worth millions, in another Massachusetts city.

Law Enforcement raids the home of a suspected Fentanyl dealer (Cleveland, Ohio)

These drug seizures provide evidence that large drug operations are intentionally mixing fentanyl into batches of heroin, creating even more danger for unaware heroin users. “These drugs, opioids and opiates, are killing people, especially when you're buying them off the street. You don't know what you're getting," New Jersey Lt. Colon said. "If you buy drugs off the street, you're taking a gamble.”

A New Epidemic

Law enforcement and local governments have just recently discovered the devastation that fentanyl is having on the addicted community. Massive increases in opiate-overdose deaths in the last few years have been attributed to heroin, but new discoveries are leading researchers to believe that fentanyl may be the leading cause. In Massachusetts, 336 people died from fentanyl-related overdoses in 2015- up 50 percent from the previous year. In nearby New Hampshire, fentanyl was responsible for the death of over 270 people while heroin was a factor in just 88 cases. Prior to 2014, medical examiners and law enforcement did not have a separate test for heroin and fentanyl. If someone overdosed on fentanyl they would test positive for heroin. This led to many overdose deaths misattributed to heroin. Now medical examiners have a test specifically for fentanyl, and the reports of related deaths have spiked.

"Anything can be cut with Fentanyl" - Canadian ad warning people about the dangers of Fentanyl

The huge surge of opiate overdoses in recent years may be largely due to fentanyl, not heroin. "Heroin is bad enough, but when you lace it with fentanyl, it's like dropping a nuclear bomb on the situation," says a Deputy Director in the White House's office of National Drug Control Policy. "It's so, so much more dangerous." Another added danger is that the deadly reputation of fentanyl can actually lead to its popularity. When some heroin addicts hear of a ‘new batch’ of dope that is killing people, they assume that it is really potent stuff. Are addicts really willing to risk their lives for a new high? "Usually when someone hears that people are dropping or dying out there — that's usually when an addict wants that specific stuff," confirms a former heroin addict. "They think that the high is unbelievable and they want it. You can understand why. But that's a tough call. You're playing with your life.” The lethal nature of fentanyl, rather than scaring people off, is actually attracting addicts.

Heroin addicts are not the only people dying from fentanyl overdoses. Drug enforcement officials in multiple states have found evidence of drug dealers mixing fentanyl with various street drugs; Xanax, Oxycodone, ecstasy, and even marijuana. In Florida,  Orlando's crime laboratory recently started seeing counterfeit drugs, not legally prescribed, containing dangerous amounts of fentanyl or fentanyl mixed with other drugs. This new trend makes fentanyl a risk for anyone buying street drugs, not just heroin addicts.

Counterfeit pills containing deadly levels of Fentanyl (April 2016)

Stopping the Spread of Fentanyl

Nationally, the response by law enforcement and government officials has been slow. Health officials first warned of the dangers of fentanyl in 2006 when the National Drug Intelligence Center released a statement highlighting the increasing number of opioid overdoses. It was not until years later that state crime labs and coroners started including tests for fentanyl in drug-related cases. The dangerous reality of the fentanyl crisis has only surfaced in the last five years. In fact, it was only last March that the DEA issued a nationwide alert about fentanyl, warning that overdoses were “occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States and represent a significant threat to public health and safety.” Law enforcement officers and policymakers are struggling to react to the problem's fast-moving spread. Only a handful of states have added acetyl-fentanyl, a popular derivative of the drug, to their lists of banned substances and the DEA added it to the federal list in 2015. Preventing the spread of this deadly drug is a formidable task for law enforcement and public health officials.

One solution is to allow prosecutors the ability to charge criminal fentanyl cases in felony court. By making fentanyl-related charges carry harsher sentences, officials hope to deter dealers and sellers from seeking out the drug. They also aim to use these felony charges as leverage to get heroin users to give up information about the drug networks and to enter drug treatment for their addiction. "We want to have a substantial sentence hanging over them,” a Maine Attorney General says, "so that we can encourage them — force them, if you will — into treatment."

Another way both federal and state authorities are trying to block the growing fentanyl crisis is by raising public awareness about the deadly drug and urging drug users to report when they encounter a particularly dangerous batch of heroin. Appealing to the heroin users for help is often an unsuccessful plea. As mentioned before, some heroin addicts are attracted to the dangerous fentanyl because they equate deadly with powerful. They know the risk of abusing heroin with fentanyl, yet they do it anyway for the addictive and euphoric high it produces.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the flow of fentanyl into the United States from Countries like Mexico and Canada. At the U.S-Mexico border, over 60 % of heroin seizures in 2015 contained traces of fentanyl. There was over 540 cases of fentanyl seized alone, and in enormous quantities. It is estimated that anywhere between 1 to 5 million dollars’ worth of fentanyl is entering our borders every day, often to be mixed with heroin and sold across the nation. Government and state officials are looking for ways to crack-down on fentanyl coming across the borders, hoping to reduce the supply of the drug in America.

This fast-spreading crisis is escalating throughout America, leaving state officials reeling, and thousands dead in its wake.


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