Fentanyl is now the no. 1 killer among illicit drugs: CDC report

Almost one in three deaths caused by a drug overdose in 2016 involved the lethal opioid, says a recent government report

By Reed Alexander


The synthetic opioid fentanyl was the drug involved in the greatest number of overdose-related deaths in the years from 2011 to 2016, according to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December. In fact, the number of fentanyl-related deaths jumped a staggering 113% per year in each of the years from 2013 to 2016, the report found.


Of the total 63,662 overdose-related deaths in 2016, 18,335 — about 29% — involved fentanyl, according to the findings. Meanwhile, 15,961 (25%) of the deaths involved heroin; and 11,316 (17.8%) involved cocaine.


The fentanyl epidemic has been reaching a dangerous fever pitch in recent years. The powerful opioid, often used as heroin- or cocaine-cutting agent, is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, and 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Just a 0.25 milligram dose can be fatal.


“For a sense of just how little that is, a typical baby aspirin tablet is 81 mg. If you cut that tablet into 324 pieces, one of those pieces would be equal to a quarter-milligram,” a recent CNN report explained.


Fentanyl EpidemicOverdoses Often Involve Multiple Drugs

Oftentimes, researchers say, multiple drugs are found in a substance abuser’s system at the time of death, so it’s difficult to conclusively determine which one — fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, or something else altogether — is responsible for the lethal overdose. Indeed, it could be a combination of several substances that is to blame.


“These drugs aren’t necessarily being taken in isolation,” said Holly Hedegaard, a medical epidemiologist for the CDC and author of the report. “Most times, fentanyl is not the only drug that’s found in these overdose deaths. About 70% of the time, it’s fentanyl plus some other drug,” Hedegaard told Retreat.


How Many People Die From Drugs Every Year?

According to the CDC, the opioid epidemic – and the number of overall overdose-related deaths – has been ballooning in recent years. From 2011 to 2016, the death toll grew by an average of 54% each year. Separate overdose statistics from 2017 indicated that 72,000 people passed away from an overdose that year — almost 10,000 more than the year before.
In light of the trend, the New York Times has named drug overdose the no. 1 cause of death among Americans under the age of 50.


The Fentanyl Crisis Shows No Signs Of Stopping

A spate of recent journalistic and law enforcement investigations allege that much of the illegal fentanyl being smuggled into the United States is generated at factories in China and Mexico.


With a seemingly unstoppable supply being mixed into batches of other drugs, experts fear that fentanyl-related overdoses will remain all too common in the future. Dealers combine the drug with other substances to inexpensively boost the intense high that they produce.


“No one says, ‘I want to shoot fentanyl.’ [These people] want to shoot heroin,” speculated Melissa Callahan, the Corporate Director of Nursing for Retreat Premier Addiction Treatment Centers.


“[Fentanyl] will kill you because it suppresses your respirations… You’ll stop breathing,” she noted. “Heroin is already an opiate which suppresses your respiration and your heart rate. Add fentanyl, [and] you’re doing a double dose of the same thing” — but in a much more life-threatening way.
“I’m concerned that the number of fentanyl-related deaths will continue to rise in the coming years,” Callahan concluded. “The supply seems to be unlimited.”