Drug abuse and drug-related deaths have been an issue for decades, but the past decade has seen an unrivaled surge in lethal overdoses: in 2017 alone, drug overdoses killed more than 70,000 Americans. This recent spike can be attributed to an increased use of opioids, including methadone, morphine, oxycodone, heroin, and fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that was originally developed for treating severe pain (typically for advanced cancer), but it has become a major driver of the current opioid crisis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Vital Statistics Reports released a report on March 22 that highlights the dangers associated with fentanyl and how different demographic groups are being impacted.
The most notable result of the report is the fact that deaths caused by fentanyl overdoses increased by over 1,000% between 2011 and 2016. The report notes that the number of annual deaths due to fentanyl overdoses remained relatively steady between 2011-2013 (1,600-1,900 deaths per year). That trend changed drastically in 2014 when the deaths started to double. In 2014 there were 4,223 fentanyl-related deaths, in 2015 there were 8,251, and the number skyrocketed to 18,335 deaths in 2016.
One of the primary factors explaining this surge is the increase in availability of illicitly manufactured fentanyl. Black market fentanyl is often cut with heroin or cocaine to make it stronger, but this also makes it much more lethal.
One of the unique characteristics of the fentanyl crisis is that the overdoses are happening in homes and communities that have not previously been impacted as profoundly by drug overdose issues. While the rate of fentanyl-related overdoses is highest for white males aged 15-24, the CDC report found that drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased for both sexes and for all ages and races.
This data about the universal risks of fentanyl provides valuable insights that should help policymakers as the country continues to grapple with bringing the opioid crisis under control.