Tuesday, October 17, 2023
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Fentanyl has killed more Americans than the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. And lined up behind it are still more vicious street drugs.
The Department of Justice could prosecute Chinese companies that produce fentanyl and the precursors used to make the drug. The Biden administration could pressure Mexico to reduce drug trafficking.
None of this will work. As long as people can make money from these drugs and others are willing to pay for them, the flow won’t stop. How did the 52-year war on drugs unfold?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. Cheap to produce, it is about 50 times more potent than pure heroin. Of the 107,081 drug overdose deaths reported in the United States last year, more than two-thirds involved synthetic opioids other than methadone. One gram of fentanyl is so dangerous that experienced drug users have died after making some careless dosing errors.
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Fentanyl is usually in the form of a white powder, which can be made into pills or mixed with other drugs such as meth, cocaine or heroin. And people who buy common prescription drugs on the street — such as Xanax to treat anxiety or Oxycodone for pain — may get something mixed up with fentanyl.
And there are scarier drugs. Carfentanil, a member of the fentanyl family of opioids, is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Originally developed as an elephant tranquilizer, it can masquerade as heroin.
Another animal tranquilizer, xylazine, is increasingly being detected in fentanyl products. Often called “tranq” or “zombie drug”, xylazine is not an opiate but a sedative. That means overdose reversal treatments, such as Narcan, don’t work against it. Furthermore, it also causes terrible flesh wounds.
These monstrous drugs can be produced in a laboratory. The failure to stop the floods has changed the calculus of groups trying to mitigate this crisis. Instead of fighting against supply, one epidemiologist says, “It’s something we’re coexisting with.”
Their strategy is “harm reduction”. Knowing there is a huge market for street drugs, they are trying to make that supply safer. One measure is to install machines at health departments and universities that can test drugs for deadly substances. Users can anonymously submit their illegal drugs for analysis.
However, these machines can cost hundreds of thousands. There are much cheaper and more reliable test strips that allow users to test for the presence of fentanyl.
Who will use this technology? It can work in social settings such as nightclubs, where testing is done on the premises. But what about children being given medicine at a party?
And would addicts going through the painful process of withdrawal bother testing a drug they thought could quickly relieve their suffering? Do-it-yourself test strips require several steps — unlike at-home COVID test kits — that a disorganized addict may have difficulty following.
Meanwhile, Florida, Texas, Kansas and Georgia have made these test kits illegal, considering them “drug paraphernalia.” That’s too bad, as is bad labeling. We should try everything to save lives. But it would also be a mistake to let testing add to the feeling that street drug use is in any way safe.
Fentanyl even appears in some types of marijuana. Legal marijuana purchased at dispensaries is a pretty safe bet, if not a sure bet. And note that in states where weed use has been legalized, purchasing it from illegal sources is still illegal.
As for fentanyl, governments cannot stop the killing. Only its customers have that power. So far, they don’t use it.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected].
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