- The suspected overdose deaths of high-profile celebrities show the opioid epidemic rages on.
- Public health experts say overdoses are on the rise and fentanyl is to blame.
- The synthetic opioid is being used to lace heroin, cocaine, and cannabis — putting users at high risk of OD.
The recent drug-related deaths of several high-profile celebrities have renewed attention to the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States.
Michael K. Williams, who was best known for his role as Omar Little on “The Wire” and Albert “Chalky” White on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” was found dead of a suspected overdose at his Brooklyn apartment on Monday with what appeared to be heroin on his kitchen table.
Popular Los Angeles comedians Fuquan Johnson and Enrico Colangeli were among three people found dead from overdoses at a party Saturday after ingesting cocaine that was laced with fentanyl, the CBS Los Angeles affiliate reported.
Public health experts say that their deaths are among a rising number of overdoses across the country as the US continues to battle an influx of fentanyl-laced street drugs during the pandemic.
Philip Rutherford, Chief Operating Officer at the nonprofit Faces & Voices of Recovery, told Insider that there are no strong data that show more people are currently struggling with substance use disorder, but rather that more people are dying from drug use.
“I think the short version is that we are absolutely seeing more overdoses,” Rutherford said. “I think the sad part is we’re actually not seeing a corresponding change in the amount of substance use disorder. Overdoses are going up, but substance use disorder itself has been a fairly durable number.”
Drug overdoses increased by 29.4% in 2020 over the prior year, according to data from the CDC.
Drug policy experts predicted a rise last year partially due to the strain of the pandemic on social services and COVID-19 related isolation keeping individuals from getting the help they need.
Rutherford and Dr. Adam Scott Wandt, an attorney and Assistant Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Insider that the growing prevalence of fentanyl being used as an additive in most street drugs is likely also responsible for the uptick in fatalities.
Fentanyl is highly potent and finding it’s way into nearly all US street drugs
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, is used by manufacturers of illicit drugs to cut their supply.
The synthetic drug is much cheaper to produce and lighter to transport, so it is economically beneficial for those producing the drugs, Rutherford and Wandt said.
While the presence of fentanyl in other opioids, like heroin or illicit pain pills, has been a well-known threat in certain parts of the country for the last five years, it’s now starting to show up in less suspecting street drugs like cocaine and cannabis.
“It’s lucrative because its a smaller by weight so you don’t need as much for the desired effect,” Rutherford said. “It’s more valuable than cocaine.”
But it’s also far more dangerous, especially to those individuals who haven’t built up an opioid tolerance.
Wandt studies how illicit drugs make their way into consumers’ hands over the dark net. Through the research, he has learned that dark net vendors are supplying a large amount of the drugs that end up making their way to neighborhood dealers, as well as directly into the hands of users.
“There’s no doubt looking at preliminary data that there is a significantly large amount of drugs coming from these darknet markets shipped from both the United States and internationally that are making their way into our communities,” he said.
The vendors produce a wide range of drugs, including heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, illicit pills, and cannabis, he said.
The market for individuals using heroin or cannabis who are seeking the effects of a drug like fentanyl is small, so oftentimes if these drugs are found to have been laced with the synthetic opioid it’s not intentional, Rutherford told Insider.
The fact that manufacturers are often producing fentanyl in the same facilities they’re making other drugs leads to a high-risk of cross-contamination, which can be especially dangerous to casual users of cocaine or other non-opioids.
“Not only are they not the typical user, but they haven’t built up the tolerance to opioids,” Wandt said. “Someone that has had little to no tolerance for opioids could have an extremely serious reaction just to the smallest amount of fentanyl.”
Fentanyl is making it’s way into communities of color
In the early days of the opioid epidemic, it was largely white Americans who were dying from the drugs. These days, though, it’s Black men and women who are overdosing at disproportionate rates, Rutherford told Insider.
“I think the Black community is just catching up. It’s about the theory delivery method,” he said.
At first, opioids were getting into the hands of those with substance use disorder or dealers through healthcare providers in the form of pain killers.
“Because in the Black community, access to quality healthcare is systemically a problem, the group was probably protected a little bit from pill form of opioids,” he said.
These days, doctors are more strict about prescribing narcotics and that supply has been replaced with illicit opioids — which are often laced with fentanyl. This form of drugs is now infiltrating urban centers, including Black and poor communities, he said.