Fentanyl: An Open Letter to Grandma
A few months ago, we circled up in your living room and talked about the opioid epidemic. You were shocked and saddened by the death toll. You had seen it reported on the news.
Since I write about addiction, I tried to explain how people become dependent on drugs. I talked about increasing tolerance levels—about how people need more and then more and then more to experience the high of their first time. One day, I said, that more could kill you.
You recounted what you’d seen on the news, that some people were poisoning the drugs, putting something extra in the drugs that would result in death. I wanted to do some research before I talked with you about this, and now I feel ready to make sense of it.
It turns out you were both right and wrong, Grandma. Substances are being added to drugs and making them even more dangerous—and yet those same substances can do good, too.
These days, heroin is often laced with Fentanyl. Fentanyl is cheaper to make than heroin and about 50 to 100 times as strong as morphine. A related drug, called Carfentanyl, is 10,000 times stronger than morphine, 2,500 times stronger than heroin, and 100 times stronger than Fentanyl. Because these drugs are so powerful, even the smallest mistake in dosage can cost a drug user her life.
If a user is taking Fentanyl on purpose to intensify the high, taking even a little bit too much can make the difference between life and death. Some users intentionally take too much Fentanyl to get them to that place of more. They intend to come as close to overdose as possible and to use naloxone (a drug that reverses the effects of Fentanyl) if they need to be brought back. But naloxone doesn’t always work. These users do not always make it.
Some users do not even know that they are taking Fentanyl, and sometimes they too overdose and die. So, you’re not wrong to think that some heroin users are being poisoned. If they knew their heroin contained Fentanyl, they might have been more cautious with the dosage or not taken it at all.
As of August 2016, the death toll due to Fentanyl killed 13 in Lafayette Parish alone, and the threat is only growing. You are right to be taking the crisis seriously.
However, it is important for you to know that Fentanyl itself is not poison. It is prescribed to treat the most severe medical pain, such as in the case of advanced cancer. Put to these legitimate medical uses, Fentanyl could be the only pain reliever that would make a difference to a person’s quality of life. Fentanyl, like many abused drugs, can bring a degree of peace to people who are experiencing a great deal of pain and suffering.
You should also know that there are several plans in the works to improve our national health, like those outlined by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institutes of Health.
Addiction recovery takes great strength, and recovery from the opioid epidemic will demand much of us as a society. Even so, I want you to understand the troubled times we are facing, Grandma. I want you to understand so that, no matter the extent of the problem, you will know that there is still and always hope.
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