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Fentanyl’s Spread Puts Millions More People at Risk

LIUNA General
and LHSFNA Labor
Armand E. Sabitoni

Whether you’ve read one of the hundreds of headlines in the news or you know someone impacted, you’ve probably heard about the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Over the past decade, illicitly manufactured fentanyl has made its way into the illegal drug supply and altered the landscape for all kinds of drug users. As drug overdose deaths continue to climb – almost 70 percent of U.S. drug overdoses in 2021 were linked to fentanyl – it’s important to know the facts and who’s at risk.

“Fentanyl is a uniquely deadly drug that’s threatening every community in our nation,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Fentanyl is no longer only affecting people addicted to opioids. Anyone can be at risk, so it’s important we take the opportunity to spread awareness about how it’s evolving.”

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and can be lethal at doses as low as two milligrams. Because it’s potent, cheap to manufacture and highly addictive, drug dealers often use it to cut other street drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as counterfeit benzodiazepines and painkillers. In some cases, dealers will sell a pill where the only active drug is fentanyl and pass it off as other drugs like Xanax, OxyContin or Adderall.

In 2021, the DEA seized more than 9.6 million counterfeit pills containing some amount of fentanyl, a 430 percent increase from 2019. Six out of 10 seized counterfeit pills contained potentially lethal doses of fentanyl, often unbeknownst to the user.

Tranq and Benzo Dope: New Kind of Drugs

A new deadly wave of drugs has been hitting the streets. The two most common are benzo dope – a combination of opioids (usually fentanyl) and benzodiazepines (sedatives) – and tranq, a combination of veterinary tranquilizer (xylazine) and another synthetic drug like fentanyl, heroin or cocaine. Blending these drugs creates a stronger, more addictive and more lethal high. Because both tranq and benzo dope contain sedatives, they can cause hours-long blackouts, which also puts users at risk of theft, assault, accidents and exposure to extreme weather. Tranq users are also experiencing severe necrotic skin wounds that can lead to amputation. And because xylazine and benzodiazepines are sedatives and not opioids, they don’t respond to standard opioid reversal treatments such as naloxone.

A 2022 study found that xylazine was present in the drug supply in 36 states and the District of Columbia. However, the true prevalence of tranq and benzo dope is still unknown. So far, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont, as well as some mid-Atlantic cities, including Philadelphia and New York City, have been hit the hardest.

Who’s at Risk?

Anyone who uses a drug purchased on the black market is at risk. This includes long-time opioid abusers and first-time experimental drug users alike. You may have a mental picture of what a “typical” fentanyl user looks like, but in reality, the drug has killed people of all walks of life: a long-time heroin addict, an injured construction worker seeking opioids when their prescription runs out or a high school student taking stimulants to help them study.

There’s been concern among parents about “rainbow fentanyl,” which refers to colorful pills allegedly targeted toward children, but experts say this shouldn’t be the primary worry. More troubling is that teens and young adults are at increased risk through access to illicit drugs online, specifically on social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. There have been several reports of teens overdosing on fentanyl acquired through online dealers in which teens believed they were taking drugs such as Percocet or Adderall. Additionally, there have been headlines circling warning of fentanyl-laced marijuana. At this time, there’s no substantial evidence supporting these claims. However, it is possible to lace marijuana with fentanyl and this might be an issue we see with black market marijuana in the future.

What’s Being Done?

Fentanyl poses a danger to communities of all races, ethnicities, geographic locations and socioeconomic standing. In April 2022, the Biden Administration announced a National Drug Control Strategy that will target two big drivers of the crisis: untreated drug addiction and drug trafficking. The plan’s primary actions include expanding harm reduction measures, increasing connection to addiction treatment and disrupting drug traffickers’ financial networks, supply chains and delivery routes.

There are a few ways you can do your part to help combat the crisis:

  • Spread the word to loved ones. Realistically, it’s not uncommon for people to experiment with drugs recreationally, especially young adults. While illicit drug use has never been “safe,” the increased prevalence of fentanyl presents a danger many are unaware of. It’s important to have honest conversations with friends, family and other loved ones about the unpredictability of the illicit drug supply and potential for fentanyl contamination. Avoiding any non-prescription drugs is best.
  • Consider carrying Naloxone. Naloxone, often sold under the name Narcan, is a lifesaving medication used to reverse opioid overdose. If you’re around anyone who you suspect might be overdosing – showing unresponsiveness, breathing problems, small pupils, vomiting or pale skin – administering naloxone will restore breathing and block the effects of opioids for up to 90 minutes.
  • Consider other harm reduction measures. For example, fentanyl test strips are an inexpensive way for drug users to test their supply for fentanyl. If someone is planning to use drugs, testing their supply for fentanyl first can help them make an informed decision and avoid overdose.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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