Fentanyl-related overdose deaths rising at an alarming rate

US Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg announced Tuesday the results from the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), which details the extent to which illicit drugs are affecting the United States.

Most notably, the 2016 NDTA continues to illuminate the nationwide opioid epidemic, which is fueling a growing heroin user population and resulting in a greater amount of overdoses. In 2014, approximately 129 people died every day as a result of drug poisoning and 61% (79) of them are pharmaceutical opioid or heroin related.

This opioid epidemic has been exacerbated by the national reemergence of fentanyl – a synthetic opioid which is much more potent than heroin. Fentanyl’s strong opioid properties have made it an attractive drug of abuse. Illicit fentanyl, manufactured in foreign countries and then smuggled into the United States, is a rising factor in the current overdose epidemic. It is usually mixed into heroin products or pressed into counterfeit prescription pills, sometimes without the users’ awareness, which often leads to overdose. The rise in overdose deaths also coincides with the arrival of carfentanil, a fentanyl-related compound, in America’s illicit drug markets. Carfentanil is approximately 10,000 times more potent than morphine. The presence of carfentanil in illicit U.S. drug markets is cause for concern, as the relative strength of this drug could lead to an increase in overdoses and overdose-related deaths, even among opioid-tolerant users.

“Sadly, this report reconfirms that opioids such as heroin and fentanyl – and diverted prescription pain pills – are killing people in this country at a horrifying rate,” Rosenberg said. “We face a public health crisis of historic proportions. Countering it requires a comprehensive approach that includes law enforcement, education and treatment.”

The 2016 NDTA also found that Mexican transnational criminal organizations continue to act as the biggest criminal drug threat to the United States and are the primary suppliers of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. These groups are responsible for much of the extreme violence seen in recent years in Mexico, as they have continually battled for control of territory. Within the U.S., violent gangs affiliated with these drug trafficking organizations are a significant threat to the safety and security of our communities. These gangs receive deadly drugs like heroin from regional cartel affiliates and then supply them to American communities for profit, regardless of the human cost.  Other 2016 NDTA findings:

  • While there is evidence of a slight decline in the abuse levels of controlled prescription drugs, data indicates an increase in the seizure of counterfeit prescription drugs (many of which contain the extremely potent substance fentanyl).
  • Heroin overdose deaths are high across the United States, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Nationally, overdose deaths more than tripled between 2010 and 2014, with the most recent available data reporting 10,574 people in the United States died in 2014 from heroin overdoses.
  • Deaths in the “synthetic opioids” category rose 79% from 3,097 in 2013 to 5,544 in 2014.  While other opioids are included in this category, public health officials maintain that fentanyl is contributing to most of this increase. Fentanyl is sometimes added to heroin batches, or mixed with other adulterants and sold as counterfeit heroin, unknown to the user.
  • Methamphetamine continues to be readily available throughout the United States, and methamphetamine distribution and use continues to contribute to violent and property crime in the United States.
  • Cocaine availability and use in the United States increased across multiple fronts between 2014 and 2015 and is likely to continue increasing in the near term. Colombia will remain the primary source of supply for cocaine in the United States, and elevated levels of coca cultivation, potential pure cocaine production, and north-bound movement indicate more cocaine is available for traffickers who want to attempt to re-invigorate the U.S. cocaine market.

The assessment factors in information from many data sources such as drug seizures, drug purity, laboratory analyses, information on the involvement of organized criminal groups, and survey data provided to DEA by 1,444 state and local law enforcement agencies across the country.

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