Facing Fentanyl: How a synthetic opioid became the deadliest drug in America

May 11, 2023, 6:50 AM | Updated: May 12, 2023, 9:41 am


FILE—In this Oct. 22, 2018 file photo, a fentanyl user holds a needle near Kensington and Cambria in Philadelphia. Suicides and drug overdoses helped lead a surge in U.S. deaths last year, and drove a continuing decline in how long Americans are expected to live. Heading into key elections in 2022, there have been assertions that the drug might be handed out like Halloween candy, something the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's head has said isn't true. And some candidates for elected office frame the crisis as mostly a border-control issue, though experts say the key to reining in the crisis is reducing demand for the drugs. (David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, File)

(David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, File)

Federal agents estimate that six out of every 10 fentanyl pills on the street contain a potentially deadly dose, yet people are taking the illegal drug every day.

As our series, Facing Fentanyl, continues, KIRO Newsradio’s Heather Bosch looks at why this drug is so addictive and deadly.

Listen to Part 3 here:

Fran Humphreys smiled as she looked at a video of a silly dance her daughter Sophie did to celebrate her birthday.

“Happy birthday, Mom!” Sophie said brightly.

Memories are all that Fran has of her daughter.

“She bought what she thought was a Percocet a couple of days after she had graduated from beauty school, and sadly, she never woke up,” Fran said.

The pain pill was counterfeit, it contained a deadly dose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Sophie is one in a staggering number of overdoses — her’s fatal — that continue to climb.

Seattle Fire Lieutenant Paramedic Brian Wallace said he has seen the increase in overdoses firsthand.

“Three years ago, we responded to roughly 3,000 calls in that category. Last year it was 3,600, and in the last 12 months, it’s over 5,600 calls,” Wallace said. “The growth of this category of this emergency is eye-wateringly large.”

King County saw 1,000 deadly overdoses last year alone, 80% of which involved opioids, the most common being fentanyl.

“You’re talking about something that’s many times more powerful than heroin or morphine,” Doctor Caleb Banta Green said, who has studied opioid use disorder since the 1990s.

The CDC reported fentanyl is 100 times stronger than morphine and about 50 times more potent than heroin.

Banta Green said fentanyl is manufactured and used in healthcare settings under tight controls in the United States, so what you’re getting virtually anywhere else — including the pill Sophie bought online — is illegal.

“Now, it’s an unregulated product, and you have no idea what’s in it or how strong it is, and that’s why there’s such an extreme overdose risk,” Green said.

Those who survive can get trapped in a cycle of drug use that’s much more volatile than the heroin that fentanyl has now replaced as the drug of choice.

“The thing you need to understand about fentanyl that’s so different from heroin: heroin you might use four to six times a day. It has a medium duration of effect. Fentanyl is so short-acting, people are using it 10 to 15 times a day,” Green said. “So fentanyl head-to-head with heroin is more dangerous, but now you’re using three times as often. That’s three times as many opportunities to overdose. The fatal overdose rate for fentanyl is about four times higher than heroin, which is why we’ve seen such a massive increase in deaths.”

Another big concern is that illegal fentanyl is turning up in other drugs, and sometimes the user has no idea.

“I do find this credible in many cases. They think they were using cocaine, or they knew they were smoking, but they just thought they were smoking some kind of marijuana [but there was fentanyl in it],” Wallace said.

Wallace claimed the epidemic has not only grown more deadly, but it has spread everywhere. First responders said they treat overdose patients from the streets to the suburbs, rendering aid by helping them breathe, administering Naloxone — which can reverse an opioid overdose — and trying to get them into drug treatment.

Wallace said they’ve brought people back from the brink, only to be called back at a later date.

“People that we’ve seen overdose in one week or one month — they did not want to be treated, and they had a subsequent overdose that was fatal,” said Wallace.

And Humphreys wants you to know that sometimes it just takes one pill.

“It’s hard because your family has this big hole in it, and you’re supposed to keep living with part of your heart gone. It’s hard. With one stupid pill,” Humphreys said.

More from the Facing Fentanyl series

Part 1, Facing Fentanyl: Hear the voices of people hurting

Part 2, Facing Fentanyl: Addiction in pregnancy ‘ruins multiple lives’

Part 4, Facing Fentanyl: Addicts find their way out

Follow Heather Bosch on Twitter or email her here.

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Facing Fentanyl: How a synthetic opioid became the deadliest drug in America