It’s no secret that heroin has been the drug of choice for quite a while now. Heroin use among individuals aged 18 to 25 has doubled in the past ten years, and overdoses and deaths from the drug are skyrocketing. But why is the rate of death so high? What is it about heroin that makes it so fatal?
One of the major factors is that doctors are overprescribing opioids, like fentanyl, as treatment for chronic pain. Just to give you an idea of how powerful fentanyl is, while normal drugs are prescribed in milligrams, fentanyl is prescribed in micrograms (0.0001 milligrams), and there is even a form of fentanyl called “carfentanil,” which is used to “immobilize” larger animals, including elephants. Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine.
But where’s the link between heroin and fentanyl, you may be asking? Well, it goes something like this: a doctor over prescribes opioids to a patient to help that patient deal with his or her chronic pain. The patient’s supply runs out, and now the patient has become addicted to the pain medication. The patient then turns to the streets for heroin because it is essentially the same drug – and because a large and increasingly larger portion of the heroin supply on the street is laced with fentanyl, the drug becomes really deadly really quickly.
Jeannie Richards, the founder and president of Bryan’s Hope, which is an organization focused on the prevention and education of heroin and opiate prevention, backs up this claim and believes that a new system should be implemented in order to monitor prescriptions in real time. Richards suggests that doctors and pharmacists update the system the moment that a prescription is filled. She believes that this would be an effective move to help stop the overprescribing of drugs, as would educating doctors on the dangers of overprescribing.
The legalization of marijuana in certain states is also being blamed for the spike in heroin abuse. Mexico’s marijuana business suffered, as is to be expected, from the legalization of marijuana, which made the drug more available, and at potentially cheaper prices. Mexican cartels that specialized in marijuana experienced a 40 percent decrease in sales. So how did they compensate for this loss? Simple: they switched over to and trumped up sales on a different crop of drug: heroin.
For an idea of how out of control the abuse of heroin has become, 26 people overdosed on heroin in a matter of five hours in Cabell County, West Virginia in mid-August 2016. Gordon Merry, EMS director for Cabell County, said that the heroin was so strong (and probably laced) that it required multiple doses of naloxone just to stabilize some of those patients.
While EMS professionals couldn’t confirm whether or not the heroin that these patients took was laced, they certainly suspected it, and they believed the potential addition to be “at least indicative of” fentanyl. Cabell County in particular has experienced their fair share of heroin overdoses in 2016 alone, with 440 overdoses occurring during the first half of the year.