How did Fentanyl Change Opioid Addiction?

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fentanyl bottles

When the US Drug Enforcement Administration released a public safety report related to numerous opioid-related deaths in Sacramento California in April of 2016 they linked the “powerful synthetic opioid” Fentanyl to many of the overdoses. DEA described Fentanyl as “an odorless substance considered to be 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine,” adding that “Fentanyl is potentially lethal, even at very low levels.”

Forbes contributor on health, medicine, psychology and neuroscience, Alice G. Watson, fleshed out why Fentanyl has become an unfortunate opioid addiction game changer in her article “Why Fentanyl is So Much More Deadly Than Heroin.”

Watson’s article first sets forth the fact that Fentanyl functions exactly like other opioids in that it crosses the blood-brain barrier to bind with specific receptors, called µ opioid receptors, in the brain. But she lays out three reasons Fentanyl use is increasing the dangers in an already challenging field of addiction:

1) Fentanyl reaches µ opioid receptors more rapidly than other opiates.

2) A much smaller dosage—micrograms as opposed to milligrams—of the drug is needed to produce the same effect as other opiates.

3) The illegal drug trade, with the chaotic mixing and misrepresentation of what goes into street drugs, does not take these first two points into account. More addicts are being rapidly created, and grave harm is accumulating to them quickly.

The effects of Fentanyl that accompany the intense euphoric high are sedation, vomiting, analgesia, and respiratory depression. Since opiate deaths are caused by respiratory arrest, a street trade incorporating Fentanyl in unregulated doses is very precarious. Media images of parents unresponsive in their car while children in the back seat try to wake them are harrowing testimonies to this.

Dealers can buy Fentanyl from China through Mexico, and while some mix it with heroin and sell it to unsuspecting heroin users, some are pressing it into pill form and selling it as if it were something else entirely, such as the hydrocodone and acetaminophen mix called Norco.

One target to combat our nation’s opioid epidemic is to look at prescribing practices of physicians. But another area to explore is the field of addiction treatment and recovery. As we gain understanding of opioid addiction causes, and the facets of healing needed to bring people back to functional living, the message of hope can become louder than the voice of the street dealer whose pills promise relief but may bring death.






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