Fentanyl, once obscure, is the deadly drug du jour

What looks like oxycodone pills are actually fentanyl. The pills were seized and submitted to crime labs in Tennessee.
What looks like oxycodone pills are actually fentanyl. The pills were seized and submitted to crime labs in Tennessee. The Associated Press

It was March when fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine, insinuated itself into Sacramento County. In a matter of weeks, dozens of people overdosed. The drug killed 12 people, including Jerome Butler, a 28-year-old father of three young children.

“We have lost so many of our kids behind this pill,” Butler’s mother, Natasha Butler, said at the time. “All the parents that (have) lost their kids behind this, we have to stand together. We have to get it stopped.”

Then, in April, fentanyl formally introduced itself to the world.

Prince was found dead, slumped in an elevator one morning at his Minnesota home and recording studio, Paisley Park. The musician had overdosed on a powerful opioid just days before, we soon found out, and he had reached out for help to rid himself of addiction. It just came too late.

It’s not surprising then that, now in 2017, fentanyl is one of the deadliest drugs plaguing the country. This scourge is something Congress and a soon-to-be-inaugurated President-elect Donald Trump can’t afford to ignore.

“Opioids such as heroin and fentanyl – and diverted prescription pain pills – are killing people in this country at a horrifying rate,” Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a statement accompanying the agency’s annual Drug Threat Assessment report. “We face a public health crisis of historic proportions.”

Cities as disparate as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Long Island, N.Y., all reported sky-high numbers of overdoses for 2016. In New York, overdose killed more than 1,000 people – the first four-digit death total in the city’s history, The New York Times reported. Almost half of the deaths since July involved fentanyl.

Nationally, the picture is even more bleak, and going back further than many would’ve imagined. Using a new method to examine data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration found that the number of deaths from fentanyl more than doubled from 2013 to 2014 to 4,200 people.

Heroin still kills far more Americans than fentanyl, but what’s alarming is the rapid increase in the number of users. The drug is so powerful that addicts can die of an overdose within minutes, and emergency responders sent to save them can die of exposure within minutes, too.

Legit fentanyl is often prescribed to cancer patients in transdermal patches or lozenges. It’s also used as an anesthetic for surgery.

But now Mexican drug cartels have gotten in on the action. As the demand for cheap marijuana has waned with legalization in California and other states, they’ve looked to the millions who are addicted to opioids to make a profit.

The number of deaths from fentanyl more than doubled from 2013 to 2014.

The cartels smuggle ingredients from China and concoct synthetic fentanyl in illicit laboratories. Sometimes they mix it with other drugs, such as heroin, before pushing it to American streets. Sometimes it’s pressed into counterfeit prescription pills, such as the painkiller Norco that Butler thought he was taking.

Reversing this trend will take work on many fronts. It should include a crackdown on drug smugglers from Mexico, as Trump has vowed to do, but also more access to addiction treatment services to end the cycle for good.

Fentanyl is far too dangerous and far too insidious to ignore.