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June 27, 2022

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In Our View: Fentanyl is ‘a major driver’ in overdose deaths

The Columbian
Published:

The scourge of fentanyl has been made clear this week in a report from the state Department of Health.

Drug-related overdose deaths in Washington topped 2,000 in 2021 — an increase of more than 66 percent compared with 2019, officials said. More than half those deaths are related to fentanyl, and fentanyl overdose deaths have increased about tenfold since 2016.

“Overdose deaths are a public health emergency, and fentanyl is a major driver,” Chief Science Officer Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett said. “What looks like a prescription oxycodone pill could be a counterfeit with more than enough fentanyl to kill. People who use drugs should assume that any drugs bought on the street, online or from a friend has fentanyl.”

That echoes a community warning issued last fall by Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County’s public health officer. “Anyone who uses powdered drugs or takes pills that were not given to them by a pharmacy should assume they contain fentanyl,” Melnick said at the time.

That followed a week in which local emergency rooms reported 12 overdose visits in one week; the typical number is six or seven. “Is it statistically significant, or is it the biggest cluster we’ve ever seen? It’s hard to say; the data is still preliminary,” Melnick said. “But it is a common cause of death in Clark County, and these deaths are preventable. That’s why we’re trying to get the word out.”

The most important message, of course, is that illicit drugs are dangerous and should be avoided. But county officials also provided advice for those who do use opioids, including: Never use alone, and carry at least three doses of naloxone, a non-prescription medication that can reverse an opioid overdose. If somebody overdoses, call 911; Washington’s Good Samaritan Overdose Law protects callers and the endangered person from drug-possession charges.

Washington is not alone is witnessing the impact of fentanyl. A study released Tuesday from UCLA found that teen overdose deaths are quickly rising nationally, although drug use is declining. Drug deaths among U.S. adolescents more than doubled from 2010 to 2021, and 77 percent of the 2021 deaths were attributed to fentanyl.

“This is not coming from more teens using drugs,” study author Joseph Friedman said. “It’s actually coming from drug use becoming more dangerous.”

Sheila Vakharia of the Drug Policy Alliance said young people are buying what they think are legitimate pills, but actually “they are pressed pills with drugs that were made in the underground market, and they were pressed to look real.”

Those counterfeit drugs increasingly include fentanyl, a synthetic opioid typically 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. As Dr. Nora Volkow told Vox.com: “Fentanyl is all over the country, like the COVID pandemic. You can say that they have occurred alongside each other.”

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency reported in 2020 that China and Mexico are the primary source countries for fentanyl coming to the United States, but production is expanding in other nations.

As long as there is demand for illegal drugs, there will be supply. Experts note that anti-drug efforts have been effective in reducing demand, particularly among teens and young adults, but additional education is required. Friedman said: “We need to update their understanding so that they know that pills are actually becoming the most dangerous thing.”

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