Deaths related to fentanyl overdoses are up nearly 70 percent over last year, as reported by the Washington State Department of Health (WSDOH). But that number doesn’t provide the full scope of the state’s drug problem.
So why is this happening? To understand the problem, some context is needed.
Caleb Banta-Green, the principle research scientist at UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, pointed out that while the rate of fentanyl overdose deaths has increased, the rate of overall opioid-related overdose deaths in Washington state has actually remained flat over the last decade, hovering around 700 a year.
Essentially, what’s happening is not an increase in overdoses, as much as an increase in the way people are overdosing.
Banta-Green described how years ago, “we saw an increase in prescription opiates. Then that started to go down, we saw heroin take its place, heroin leveled off a little bit, and fentanyl is taking its place as another illicit opioid.”
Even as opiate prescriptions decrease, the demand and rate of addiction remains. What follows is that people addicted to painkillers typically graduate to cheaper, more available options like heroin. Enter fentanyl, an even less expensive, more dangerous option masquerading as a prescription painkiller.
“People will often try to use pills instead of heroin because it’s seen as safer,” explained Banta-Green. “Historically, that might even have been true, but now you’re getting what looks like an oxycodone 30 tablet, and there’s no oxycodone in it at all — it’s fentanyl of unknown quantity and purity.”
A news release from the WSDOH indicated that “in the first half of 2018, there were 81 deaths linked to fentanyl, versus 48 deaths recorded during the same time period last year.”
Fentanyl is currently found in counterfeit pills made to look like prescription opiates like oxycodone. The risk comes from the fact that fentanyl is anywhere from 30 to 50 times as strong as pure heroin, and “a dose the size of a few grains of salt can be fatal to an average-size person.”
The reasoning for dealers and illicit importers is simple: Profit.
“It’s much more efficient to ship in fentanyl than it is to ship in heroin. Fentanyl is 30 times more potent than heroin — that means to get the same number of people high, you only have to ship in one-thirtieth the amount,” said Banta-Green.
This has seen the East Coast get hit especially hard, even more so than Washington.
“Washington is actually being hit pretty light [by fentanyl overdoses] compared to the rest of the country — New York City has seen an overall increase of overdose death rates of 50 percent that is driven entirely by fentanyl,” said Banta-Green.
All that being what it is, there are steps being taken by the state to fight the epidemic. The Department of Health’s recovery helpline is designed as an outlet to anyone suffering from addiction, getting people same-day access to low-barrier medication like buprenorphine that can help wean an addict off of heroin entirely.
“Opiate addiction is a treatable medical condition,” pointed out Banta-Green. “The most evidence-based interventions are treatment medications, those treatment medications support people in their recovery, and they reduce their chance of an overdose death by 50 percent.”
You can reach the state’s confidential recovery helpline at 1-866-789-1511. The WSDOH also recommends users carry naloxone to guard against an overdose — you can find out where naloxone is carried near you here.