The U.S. is seeing a record number of overdoses due to highly addictive pain-relieving medicine. It’s an epidemic with a much higher toll than gun-related deaths.
On this Tuesday morning, a handful of people are waiting by the Family and Medical Counseling Service, Inc. van, parked in a Black neighborhood in Washington. This nongovernmental organization exchanges used syringes and provides assistance to drug addicts. “Before, when we arrived, there used to be a crowd, the waiting lines were long,” explains Tyrone Pinkney, one of the coordinators. “But now, so many people have died …”* In Washington, as elsewhere in the United States, it has been carnage.
More than 100,000 Americans have succumbed to an overdose between April 2020 and April 2021. This is more than the combined total of road traffic victims and gun-related deaths. The numbers are staggering: Deaths by overdose have increased by 30% compared to the previous year, and have more than doubled since 2015. Two-thirds of the deaths are due to synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl.
This painkiller is 100 times more powerful than morphine, and a lot cheaper. Manufactured by drug traffickers and sold through social media or on the street, fentanyl is often surreptitiously cut with cocaine, heroin, or counterfeit OxyContin, Percocet, hydrocodone or Xanax pills, which are normally prescription drugs.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, 42% of the pills tested contained at least two milligrams of those substances, a potentially lethal dose. And the consumers, when buying them, often believe they are purchasing real medicine and do not know what they are consuming. In 2016, the artist Prince died of an accidental overdose. According to the prosecutor, the singer thought he was taking Vicodin to alleviate pain in his hip. He was actually ingesting fentanyl.
The opioid crisis is nothing new. At the end of the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies lauded, through huge marketing campaigns, the virtues of OxyContin to alleviate backaches, arthritis, fibromyalgia (a chronic condition causing persistent and widespread pain) and all other chronic pain conditions. The miracle pill turned out to be highly addictive and less efficient than was originally claimed. And thousands of mothers, teenagers and elderly people to whom doctors had prescribed OxyContin to relieve sciatica, toothaches or a broken bone found themselves unwittingly addicted.
When American authorities finally began to regulate access to those drugs, it had catastrophic consequences. Consumers fell back onto black market pills, which are often counterfeit, before turning to heroin and synthetic opioids from 2013. Like Colton did. “I had never taken any drugs in my life,” he recalled.* He overcame his addiction but his wife, who also became addicted following a car accident, died of an overdose last year.
’We Must Stop Frantically Prescribing Prescription Opioids.’
These synthetic painkillers have another dramatic consequence. They have devastating effects even among those who do not take opioids. One night last February, Mia Gugino, a 17-year-old Las Vegas student, took an ecstasy pill which had been, unbeknownst to her, mixed with fentanyl. When her father came into her room the next day at lunchtime, she was dying. “One pill can kill,”* summed up the local police chief. It can even be found in marijuana. In Connecticut, 39 people have overdosed since July after smoking weed.
The epidemic was already raging before the pandemic, but isolation, depression, limited access to treatments, and especially to naloxone, an overdose antidote, have exacerbated the crisis. Sitting in the FMCS van, Terrence Cooper, another coordinator from the organization, is very pessimistic. “It’s a tragedy. COVID has boosted the drug market. People want fentanyl because it’s better than getting high. We’ve lost a lot of patients who relapsed because their bodies could no longer tolerate such a powerful substance. Our fight is a very difficult and endless struggle.”*
Fentanyl is very easy to produce and is a lot more profitable for its manufacturers than cocaine or heroin. Coming mainly from China, either as a component or as a finished product, it makes its way to Mexico where drug cartels receive it and smuggle it to the U.S., often in small quantities, which makes it harder to intercept.
The overdose epidemic is a “national crisis” which “continues to get worse,” according to Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Anne Milgram. The Biden administration has put aside $2 billion in its recovery plan and $11 billion more in its budget plan to improve prevention and treatment, and to distribute more naloxone and rapid test strips to help drug addicts detect traces of fentanyl in the products they buy.
Those measures are deemed “insufficient” by Dr. Andrew Kolodny, of Brandeis University, one of the first people who raised the alarm about the dangers of those painkillers. “We must stop frantically prescribing prescription opioids. And then we must facilitate access to treatments such as buprenorphine, which treats addiction, but this drug remains expensive and difficult to obtain.”* Kolodny advocates for the implementation of a vast campaign similar to that created for AIDS, which made medicine accessible to all. “It’s a public health emergency,”* he concludes. Even more so now, as protonitazene and isotonitazene, new drugs even more powerful than fentanyl, and which require a higher dose of antidote in case of an overdose, are making their way onto the market.
*Editor’s note: This quote, accurately translated from the original, could not be verified.