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Fentanyl Crisis: What's driving the drug overdose epidemic?

Posted: 10:32 AM, Sep 26, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-11 12:27:35-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — Girl, China White, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Jackpot, Murder 8, and Tango & Cash -- all street names of illegal fentanyl.

The CDC reports fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that's 50 times more potent than heroin -- 100 times more potent than morphine.

Fentanyl Crisis
Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, and fueling overdose deaths across the nation.

Fentanyl is so dangerous that it could kill someone in less than a minute.

"Oh, it could be a few seconds," said Dr. Donnie Sansom, who is the Director of Addiction at Sierra Tucson -- a treatment center.

Sansom said a dose can go past a person's level of tolerance -- inside their central nervous system giving people little or no time to call 911.

And more people are dying -- overdosing -- because of fentanyl.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reveals, in 2017, nearly 60 percent of opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl compared to 14 percent in 2010.

So how did it get to this point so fast?

Illegal fentanyl is easier to get, "because it's so potent, a lot of people have figured out how to game that system and abuse it. That's the real concern," said Samson.

They include the cartels, who see fentanyl as the new cash cow.

Sansom said a $5,000 investment pays for about 2 pounds. Dealers can mix it with drugs, like cocaine, heroin, meth. or press it into pills that look like real prescription opioids and that initial investment now becomes worth about $1.5 million.

"So if course they're going to keep that gravy train going as it were and that's what's driving this," he said.

Even the street savvy addicts, Samson said, don't know their supply is laced with fentanyl. And for non-addicts, the risk of overdosing is extreme.

"And somebody offers them a drug, it's at a party, I'm going to take it. Maybe they already have a few drinks on board. And they take it in if it's fentanyl or laced with fentanyl, the respiratory depression as they described is profound for that person because they have no tolerance," said Sansom.

And the fentanyl reach is far -- stretching across the age spectrum. Data from 2016 shows more deaths among those aged 25 to 35. Sansom said there's also an uptick among the elderly and teens.

"And so the misconception also is that it's just a young street addict - kind of a drug - it's affecting everybody across the board," Sansom said.

And withdrawal from fentanyl or any opioids can be very painful and difficult.

Symptoms include:

  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Vomiting
  • Cold flashes

Those symptoms are some of the reasons why people find it so tough to stop taking fentanyl and many users end up in treatment centers.

Sansom said like other opioid addictions, after a patient medically detoxes the center focuses on behavioral therapies.

"Also, a lot of people who are suffering from addiction have other undercurrents to the addiction, trauma in their life, mood disorders, such as anxiety, depression, there may be chronic pain issues that have driven them towards opioid use that, although perhaps well intended, in the beginning, has leaned itself into an abuse issue," he said.

Sansom says treatments include sessions with doctors, therapists, relapse prevention, group and equine therapies, yoga, and massages. "So we really treat the mind, body and spirit here. We treat all of the things that go into what makes us human," said Sansom.