The United States is currently in the middle of a dangerous opioid epidemic that is seeing people lose their lives, and the foundation of the problem is the illegal drug fentanyl; a painkiller hospitals use that is also manufactured on the black market in South America and China.
Across the past few years, fentanyl has begun to creep into opiate-based drugs like heroin and oxycodone. It offers a low-cost alternative to these drugs and, as it provides a similar high, drug pushers on every level of the supply chain started cutting it into their drugs as an adulterant. Now fentanyl – which is 25-50 times more potent than heroin – has appeared in one of the most unexpected places; the US cocaine supply.
The combination of fentanyl and cocaine has already started killing people. 37% of the cocaine-related overdose deaths in New York City in 2016 were because of fentanyl. Just north of New York, in Connecticut, 143 overdose fatalities involving cocaine and fentanyl were recorded. There were just 42 such deaths in 2015. Four people in San Diego, California died last month as a result of taking cocaine laced with fentanyl.
A study published by JAMA Psychiatry in May showed just how serious the situation had become. It showed that there was a drastic increase in overdose-related deaths involving synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl. Around 3,000 of these overdose deaths occurred in 2010, with the number increasing exponentially in 2016; reaching over 19,000. Perhaps more surprising was the statistic that cocaine was involved in around a fifth (22%) of those overdose deaths.
The potency of fentanyl is one reason that it is such a problem. Even a small amount of the drug, especially for someone who isn’t used to opioids, can prove to be fatal. People that use cocaine might not have experience with using opioids, meaning they haven’t built up any kind of personal tolerance to opioids and their effects.
So How and Why Did Fentanyl Appear in Cocaine?
There are some theories, but no one can say for sure.
There are two main theories on the matter; the first being malicious intent and the second being improper packaging. On the one side, some officials, including some first responders and law enforcement, suggest dealers have begun intentionally cutting their cocaine with fentanyl. Fentanyl is relatively cheap compared to other drugs after all, so it allows drug cartels to stretch their products out by mixing fentanyl and selling the combination as pure cocaine for the same price.
Experts also believe that adding fentanyl to cocaine enables cartels to get users hooked easier as the resulting drug is more addictive, increasing their overall opioid market. This is a risky move on their part however, and it doesn’t make too much sense when you remember that even small doses of fentanyl can prove fatal. Why would they risk the lives of their income sources?
Some experts believe that many drug dealers simply don’t know that they are distributing cocaine laced with fentanyl.
Despite the difference in opinions, experts are agreed on one thing; the situation is bad and it’s getting worse. Of all the cocaine seized last year by the Massachusetts state police, 199 samples contained fentanyl – almost three times the amount from 2016. The U.S Drug Enforcement Agency told NPR in March that fentanyl had been found in 7% of the cocaine seized across New England in 2017, an increase of 3% over the previous year.
Lawmakers are working to halt the death toll. Health officials in New York City distributed posters and coasters contained drug safety tips across venues ont eh Lower East Side. They also applied the life-saving overdose drug naloxone and trained workers in administering the important medication.