Fentanyl overdose deaths claiming thousands of American lives; what is behind the rise?

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Over the past two decades, nearly a million people have died from overdose deaths, but a growing majority of those deaths in recent years have involved dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. First synthesized by Belgian chemist Paul Janssen as a pain reliever in 1960, it proved to be a useful drug to help patients with traumatic injury.

The DEA seized 32,000 fake pills that looked like legitimate prescription pills in Omaha, Neb, on July 8-9.

The DEA seized 32,000 fake pills that looked like legitimate prescription pills in Omaha, Neb, on July 8-9.
(Drug Enforcement Administration)

But it wasn’t until about the past decade that the drug hit the black market and really started destroying lives and communities in the US.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that more than 108,000 people in the US died from drug overdoses between February 2021 and February 2022. More than 70% of these involved fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

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One of the main causes of fentanyl proliferation in recent years has been cheaper production methods. While other plant drugs such as heroin and cocaine must be cultivated and cultivated, synthesized drugs such as fentanyl are cheaper – for producers as well as consumers.

“Producing (heroin) is expensive and time-consuming because you have to use the real poppy from the poppy fields. Because fentanyl is a synthetic drug, you eliminate that process and it’s much more lucrative,” a Los Angeles police officer and expert in the field of drug recognition told Fox News Digital. “A legitimate 40-milligram OxyContin pill costs about $40 dollars. You can get these illegal pills, like the M-30s, for $10 or $15 each.”

The expert asked to remain anonymous as the expert was not authorized to speak to the media.

Suspects arrested in connection with fentanyl trafficking were linked to a transnational criminal organization known to smuggle drugs, authorities said.

Suspects arrested in connection with fentanyl trafficking were linked to a transnational criminal organization known to smuggle drugs, authorities said.
(Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office)

The officer, who has been on duty for about two decades, has seen the drug affect both the rich and the poor.

“I feel like fentanyl affects everyone. Because you have different forms,” ​​the officer said. “You have people who just use it in powder form – they smoke it off foil – your transients in Skid Row. And then you have your big names like (rapper) Mac Miller or (MLB player) Tyler Scaggs, who have more than enough money have to buy all the drugs they want, but they … unknowingly overdose on fentanyl.”

This photo shows the largest seizure of fentanyl pills in California history.

This photo shows the largest seizure of fentanyl pills in California history.
(Drug Enforcement Administration)

Investigative journalist and author Ben Westhoff, who chronicled the rise of the fentanyl epidemic in his book “Fentanyl, Inc.” said it wasn’t until dealers really realized they could make so much more money cutting other drugs with fentanyl that it became kind of a supply-driven phenomenon.”

“Nobody saw it coming. In part it was that production methods became simpler. A new production method was discovered,” says Westhoff.

Westhoff traces the modern crisis dating back to 2005, when US lawmakers cracked down on methamphetamine in the US. The US Senate banned the over-the-counter sale of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, which is often used to make methamphetamine.

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Subsequently, many of the backcountry meth labs across the US moved to Mexico. These labs, Westhoff said, evolved into “super labs” that received precursor ingredients directly from China, a relationship that continues today.

Now chemicals used to make fentanyl are sold almost entirely to Mexican drug cartels from China. The cartels then package the fentanyl in other drugs like Xanax and Adderrall and ship them to the US to be sold on the black market. Consequently, most Americans who die from fentanyl-related overdose deaths are not even aware that they are consuming it.

One of those many victims was Thomas Olrik Jr., who died of a fentanyl-related overdose at the age of 28. His mother, Mary Pratt-Weiss, told Fox News Digital that her son had struggled with addiction in the past but was beginning to suffer. to get his life back on track and was enrolled in a rehabilitation program.

“He started sharing and leading Heroin Anonymous meetings. He helped a lot of people get sober. He was a true icon in the community. Everyone knew him wherever he went. He was just always lighting up a room,” Pratt said. -Weiss.

Olrik was also a talented artist and did well financially by selling his artworks at festivals.

“He would create these huge murals while bands would play. And people would see him painting,” Pratt-Weiss said.

However, things took their toll with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Olrik, who was prone to anxiety and panic attacks, deteriorated. He died of an overdose on July 19, 2021. Olrik’s autopsy report revealed that he had Klonopin, a highly addictive drug used to treat panic attacks, and fentanyl in his system.

“The fact that Klonopin and fentanyl were in his system tells me he was stressed and he probably just wanted something to calm him down,” Pratt-Weiss said. “But I highly doubt he would have brought enough to the OD if he knew what was in it.”

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Olrik’s story could have happened to anyone. That’s why Pratt-Weiss, who is now on a mission to educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl, says the drug doesn’t recognize race, class, or gender.

“I now have a friend whose daughter is addicted to fentanyl, and she went through literal hell getting her into rehab,” Pratt-Weiss said. “My neighbor behind me who just bought the house, they lost a twin daughter to fentanyl last October.”

Still, it is highly unlikely that the US can prevent fentanyl from entering the country. All sources who spoke to Fox News Digital on the subject said not enough resources are being devoted to the issue. In some cases, local governments are even going backwards in terms of funding.

“I definitely think we’re falling way short. We have to treat it like COVID, a situation where all hands on deck,” Westhoff said.

Despite a lack of resources, both Westhoff and Pratt-Weiss agreed that public education can go a long way in combating this problem.

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“Education is key. People should talk to their kids. They should tell them not to try anything. They should research their children’s texts under 18 (and) educate them in the sense that these things, even antidepressants, can be laced.” said Pratt-Weiss. “Everyone will sooner or later have someone they know has been affected. I believed it’s super important now that people are educated.”

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