Painkillers are intended to help people with a medical need cope with temporary or chronic pain. Synthetic opioids are among the strongest painkillers available and can act as powerful sedatives. Some common, infamous drugs like morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone are synthetic opioids. Another member of this group is fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Due to how powerful fentanyl is, it is a controlled prescription pharmaceutical, prescribed only in small doses to those with severe pain. However, some people make and distribute it illegally, either for standalone use or to stretch the supply of more expensive opioids. Buyers may actively pursue illicit fentanyl use, substitute fentanyl for more expensive prescriptions, or even encounter fentanyl inadvertently when using other drugs.
For this reason, fentanyl has become a serious concern and cause for an uptick in opioid use disorder (OUD). The fentanyl problem is especially common in Arizona. Fentanyl is the most common cause of drug overdose deaths, even for children as young as fourteen. So, why is there a fentanyl crisis in Arizona?
Drug Use in Arizona
Fentanyl, of course, is just one of many types of opioids. So, how common are opioid overdoses in Arizona? In Arizona, opioid misuse, like substance use disorder in general, is relatively common, with thousands of people dying in 2017 and 2018 alone.
However, opioids are of particular concern, with five people dying of an opioid overdose each day in the state. Fentanyl is the newest drug to reach crisis status, and it has done so more quickly than any other opioid. With fentanyl statistics continuing their rise as the years progress, the drug contributes more and more to the overall picture of drug overdose in Arizona.
Of course, fentanyl alone, as dangerous and as prevalent as it is, is simply one drug. The situation in Arizona isn’t as simple as the spread of one more opioid. In fact this situation involves the prevalence of multiple drugs, some of which are not classified as opioids.
Because drug distributors often combine drugs to make a more potent product at a cheaper price, it’s no surprise that fentanyl has now claimed a spot as one of the most-identified drugs in overdose situations. Because of distributors’ willingness to cut cheaper fentanyl into drugs like cocaine, heroin, and prescription opioids, people can be exposed to dangerously high levels of fentanyl when they’re not expecting it. Fentanyl test strips are an innovative and inexpensive method of identifying the drug in other substances.
This is one of the most significant reasons fentanyl is such a common cause of overdose and substance use disorder in Arizona. It is being circulated in large quantities both blatantly and under the nose of consumers who aren’t otherwise intending to use fentanyl. It’s easy to get and often has life-threatening consequences for the people who take it.
So, why fentanyl? Of all the opioids and other painkillers on both the legal and illicit market, why is fentanyl exploding in use all over Arizona? Can we blame the rise in fentanyl use solely on how potent and powerful the drug is, or is there a deeper reason to explain the statistics?
Why Arizona Chooses Fentanyl
It’s clear that fentanyl is a dangerous drug that circulates easily. What isn’t immediately clear is why fentanyl is chosen over other opioids in the first place, especially with the climbing overdose and mortality rates. In fact, there are a few factors that explain the trend and why it’s so common, both across the US and in Arizona specifically.
The first and most significant problem is that fentanyl is extremely easy for people to access. In addition to the fentanyl supply that’s being produced and sold illicitly by street distributors, fentanyl is also a prescription that can be legally prescribed for severe pain and obtained at a pharmacy. This means that people experiencing severe pain and desperate for relief can obtain fentanyl legally as a painkiller, develop dependence on its painkilling effects, and seek more potent versions of the drug once they develop a tolerance or end their prescription.
Combine this with how often counterfeit fentanyl is smuggled in from the south west border, and it’s a recipe for a serious problem that is difficult to address. In 2020 alone, officials seized over 150,000 counterfeit fentanyl pills, along with over 4,000 pounds of the drug. This indicates a serious issue in a state where 91% of all task force arrests were related to illicit drugs.
Social media may be another major factor in the notoriety of fentanyl. Influencers on apps like Instagram and TikTok live up to their title when it comes to encouraging specific behaviors in their followers, especially those who are young. If influential people present the use of drugs, including drugs often cut with fentanyl, as glamorous, exciting, or adult, others may become convinced that they need to use these drugs to fit in and be seen as cool. It’s the exact peer-pressure scenario we were warned about in after-school specials, but spread across the internet in a way that can reach a much wider and more impressionable audience. When combined with the fact that a growing number of parents may have prescription or illicit fentanyl in the home, it’s no surprise that younger and younger teens can and do suffer from fentanyl overdoses with increasing regularity.
As mentioned, fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid, especially in relation to how accessible it is. Opioids in general can have some serious effects on the body, whether they’re used as recommended to ease pain, or illicitly as a way to feel high, numb, to escape negative. Regardless of the reason for use, this potent drug has become popular as a way for people who have developed tolerance to other opioids to achieve the same results. In fact, research has demonstrated that fentanyl is often taken by people who are tolerant to other opioids. Others choose fentanyl because they are no longer able to obtain their substance of choice, like other prescription opioids and even heroin.
Drug Use Prevention
Of course, no drug crisis will go away on its own. However, for a crisis as large as the fentanyl crisis in Arizona, we will need to take specific steps to reduce use safely and prevent others from becoming dependent on this powerful drug. These techniques involve various aspects of society, from law enforcement agencies, substance use treatment centers, and schools, to individuals who want to spread the message about the danger associated with using fentanyl and drugs like it.
Some of these changes must be cultural. If people don’t consider the fentanyl crisis to be important, they won’t be convinced to take the measures necessary to slow the circulation of the drug. In a 2018 survey regarding congressional priorities, only 24% of people claimed that they saw opioids as a high priority for the government to address.
While 53% of people agreed that substance use disorders involving prescription drugs is a mental health condition, over 36% viewed opioid use disorder (OUD) as a personal weakness, instead. In general, Americans seem to consider the opioid epidemic—and fentanyl—as a second tier priority.
One solution to this disconnect involves banning fentanyl as a prescription drug. Prescription drug abuse in Arizona is a growing issue. The move wouldn’t address counterfeit fentanyl, but it would make it more difficult for people to access the most powerful form of opioid on the market today. Slowing the spread of illicit fentanyl will prove more difficult, especially as it’s often mixed with other drugs. Better education about the effects of prescription and illicit drugs, the reality of a substance use disorder as anything but glamorous, and knowledge about the risks of encountering deadly fentanyl cut with other drugs could reduce overdoses.
Getting Help For a Substance Use Disorder
Removing fentanyl from the Arizona drug market is only one piece of the puzzle. One of the most important aspects of handling the Arizona drug crisis is offering people with OUD a safe environment in which to recover and learn the steps necessary to avoid using drugs again in the future.
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Having been on both sides of active addition, both the person using, and the person affected by a loved one using drugs and alcohol, Lucas has been involved in recovery since 2009. He has been working in the treatment industry since 2013. Using his personal experience and wealth of knowledge learned from professional development and immersion in the recovery field, he has spoken with thousands of families and helped hundreds of people attain long-term sobriety. In 2020, the opportunity presented to join in and start Illuminate Recovery. Understanding the importance of personalized treatment plans and the complex nature between substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, has helped Illuminate Recovery build a strong curriculum and a phenomenal staff. Illuminate Recovery now has a medical doctor who is board certified in addiction medicine and a psychiatric medical doctor who works side by side with independently licensed therapists to provide compassionate and effective treatment.