As the U.S. tries to emerge from the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts and law enforcement officials are concerned about another health crisis: a sharp rise in the number of drug related overdoses attributed to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a bulletin earlier this week to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies warning of a nationwide spike in fentanyl-related mass-overdose events.
Already this year, numerous mass overdose events have resulted in dozens of overdoses and deaths,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram in an email statement to VOA.
Fentanyl-related mass overdose events are characterized as three or more overdoses occurring close in time and at the same location.
In February, five people died in an apartment outside Denver from overdoses of fentanyl mixed with cocaine. In another case, five West Point Military Academy cadets survived after overdosing on fentanyl-laced cocaine while on spring break in Florida last month. At least seven American cities have seen an increase in drug-related overdoses resulting in 29 deaths, according to the DEA.
“Drug traffickers are driving addiction, and increasing their profits, by mixing fentanyl with other illicit drugs. Tragically, many overdose victims have no idea they are ingesting deadly fentanyl, until it’s too late,” said Milgram.
Law enforcement officials believe the problem has grown worse since the government released figures last year indicating more than 105,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in October 2021. Sixty-six percent of those deaths were related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is a very historic time. We have never had the amount of death and destruction than we are seeing now,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House office of National Drug Control Policy, last month.
Health officials say powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine. Researchers say taking just two milligrams of fentanyl can kill a person.
U.S. law enforcement agencies seized nearly 10 million fentanyl pills last year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. There have also been numerous news reports of large seizures by state and local police in the last two months.
“Fentanyl has flooded the market across the country,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, speaking on CNBC. “It has contaminated other drugs such as heroin, many illicit drugs including illicit prescription medication.
Overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. But the latest data show a sharp rise during the pandemic. Last year, the United States suffered more fentanyl-related deaths than gun- and automobile-related deaths combined.
Minority drug overdoses soar
The rise in opioid related overdoses has impacted many communities. Opioid deaths among African Americans and other minority groups continue to rise. U.S. researchers found overdose deaths jumped nearly 49% among Black people in the United States from 2019 to 2020, compared with a 26% increase among white people. Overdose deaths among Native Americans and Alaska Natives were 31% higher than among white adults, according to research from UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
Law enforcement groups note that, compared to other drugs, fentanyl is inexpensive, with one pill costing just a few dollars. The price makes it a popular drug among low-income minority groups.
“We know the COVID-19 pandemic hit Black Americans especially hard, and that the risk of a drug overdose is strongly linked to many of the damaging financial, health and social effects of the pandemic that were disproportionately borne by Black people,” said Linda Richter, vice president for prevention research at the Partnership to End Addiction.
“Even before the pandemic, Black Americans had less access to the resources and support that prevent and treat addiction, and reverse a drug overdose,” Richter said in an interview with HealthDay News.
Causes of the drug crisis
A variety of factors have contributed to America’s growing opioid crisis. Law enforcement agencies point to an increasing flow of illicit drugs and fentanyl smuggled through the southern border with Mexico.
The chemicals used to make the synthetic opioid are being shipped largely from China to Mexico, where huge quantities of illicit fentanyl are produced in labs before being smuggled into the U.S.
Strong law enforcement efforts to crack down on the abuse of prescription opioids like oxycodone are believed to have shifted demand to heroin and fentanyl. The growing availability of those drugs helped fuel higher usage — and addiction — rates among Americans.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed about 2,700 cases in 2021 involving crimes related to the distribution of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, up nearly tenfold from 2017.
“Fentanyl poisonings are at an all-time high,” said Sheriff Mike Milstead of Minnehaha County, South Dakota. “These are not isolated incidents. These are happening in every state and every county in America, leaving behind grieving families. Let us be clear, these poisonings are part of a strategic maneuver by drug cartels, and it must be stopped.”
Some Republican officials have been critical of the federal government’s efforts to stop fentanyl from entering the country through the porous U.S.-Mexico border.
In Texas, National Guard units were deployed to the border region with a mission that includes stopping the flow of fentanyl from Mexico. State leaders are also calling for tougher penalties for convicted drug dealers. “This is not a fentanyl overdose, this is poisoning by fentanyl, which we want to make a murder crime in the state of Texas,” said Governor Greg Abbott at a news conference last month.
More government funding
The Biden administration has stressed treatment and prevention and proposed $42.5 billion in federal spending to address the ongoing opioid crisis.
The proposal released last month includes $21.1 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to support prevention and treatment efforts. It would increase funding for interdiction efforts as well as addiction treatment centers in rural areas.
If approved by Congress, $80 million would be set aside for helping children impacted by the opioid crisis.
“This budget supports the Biden administration’s ongoing work to expand access to evidence-based treatment,” said Dr. Gupta, the White House official. “We want to further reduce the flow of illicit drugs like fentanyl from entering our communities and prevent overdoses.”