For far too many Americans, the opioid epidemic has become an all too familiar tragedy. Friends, colleagues, and family members across the country have had their lives hijacked or lost due to these powerful drugs. While all opioids are dangerous if abused, one drug in recent years has proven to be in a lethal class of its own. With grim efficiency, even small amounts of fentanyl can and do kill.
In an effort to protect one of our most impressionable populations from this drug, the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference recently launched an educational campaign directed at teenagers called Fentanyl: The Deadliest High. The Conference and individual district attorneys are using a mixture of social media and school outreach to let middle and high schoolers know about the unique dangers of fentanyl.
“Why we’re doing this now is because fentanyl is what’s killing people,” Guy Jones, executive director of the TNDAGC, said.
The numbers affirm this. In just the past decade, fentanyl and its analogues have contributed to a sharp rise in overdose deaths. Nationally, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, fatal overdoses associated with illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues have jumped from 2,666 in 2011 to 31,335 in 2018.
In Tennessee, the story is just as troubling. In the past few years, fentanyl has surpassed heroin as the leading cause of fatal overdoses in the state. From 2014 to 2018 the number of fatal overdoses from fentanyl per year jumped from 69 to 742, according to the Tennessee Department of Health’s 2020 Annual Overdose Report.
Even within that time frame, the danger is accelerating quickly. For instance, just from 2017 to 2018 drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl rose 48 percent, with 47 out of Tennessee’s 95 counties showing an uptick in fentanyl-related deaths. As of October 9, the Metro Public Health Department in Nashville reported that drug overdoses in Davidson County had already surpassed the number of deaths for all of 2019. Fentanyl was found in nearly 80 percent of fatal drug overdoses where toxicology reports have been completed.
Tommy Farmer, the special agent in charge of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Dangerous Drugs Task Force, is on the leading edge of the fight against fentanyl, and has likewise seen how it has become more and more widespread in the state.
“The overdoses speak for themselves and those continue to increase,” he said. “We are significantly above where we were last year.”
Special Agent Farmer said that the primary danger comes from the very nature of the drug, which can be 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin.
“You could be an experienced drug user and just a few grains of fentanyl the size of grains of salt are more than enough to overdose you,” Special Agent Farmer said. “It’s so unforgiving.”
The fatal difference can be seen in the bodies of those fentanyl users who first responders find after an overdose.
“We’re finding that most folks who are overdosing on fentanyl- based products, whether known or unknown, still have a needle in their arm when we find them,” he said. “It’s causing such a fast reaction.”
Many users know that respiratory depression or even failure is a possible side effect of an opioid overdose. Some users keep Narcan on hand for that reason, thinking that they will be able to use it if they begin to have trouble breathing. Narcan is not a guarantee of survival, though, especially when fentanyl is involved.
This is because fentanyl can cause not just a respiratory depression where a user may slowly get tired and drift off, but to what Special Agent Farmer called a “chest lock,” where users suddenly find themselves unable to breathe.
“They can’t grasp how strong this drug is,” he said. “I don’t care how strong you are or how good. You can’t handle this one.”
That staggering potency of fentanyl has made it a popular choice for drug dealers to mix in with other drugs to increase their effect.
“We’re finding a lot of illicit drugs like heroin and even cocaine that have been adulterated with fentanyl because it’s so incredibly powerful in microscopic amounts,” he said.
This highlights one of the main risks of buying and using any illicit drugs: buyers don’t really know what they are getting.
Special Agent Farmer said almost all people would scoff at the idea of buying a drug like aspirin from someone on the street who said he manufactured it at home. Every day, though, countless people purchase illicit drugs that they know little about from dealers.
“These are drugs that are not made in any normal setting,” he said. “They don’t come from a reputable pharmaceutical company with known standards, oversight, or quality control. It’s irrational to think that you could do an illicit drug that’s made in some type of clandestine setting and know what the outcome is going to be.”
Given the incredible danger that the drug poses, Executive Director Jones said it was only natural to warn teens about it.
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