Feared by drug users but hard to avoid, the powerful opioid takes a mounting toll.
Fentanyl, a highly potent prescription opioid, has Rhode Island drug users on high alert. But despite widespread aversion, fentanyl now causes the majority of the state’s drug overdose deaths.
These bleak findings by teams of Brown University researchers appear in two studies published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. They underscore the urgency of combating the misuse of fentanyl and undermine a common perception that many users court the drug for its potency.
“Most people are not asking for it,” says Jennifer Carroll, PhD, MPH, lead author of one of the studies and an adjunct assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School. “They can’t avoid it, and their desire to avoid it is not reducing their risk.”
The number of overdose deaths in Rhode Island attributable to fentanyl rose to 138 in the first nine months of 2016, compared to 84 in all of 2014, according to the other study led by Brandon Marshall, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health. In 2014, 35 percent of the state’s fatal overdoses occurred because of fentanyl, but it was involved in 56 percent of drug deaths by 2016.
Moreover, mapping all 778 overdose deaths in the state during the study period showed that fentanyl-related deaths occur virtually everywhere that heroin overdoses are occurring. Fentanyl is often used to lace heroin, but many users can’t tell if it is present.
“We were surprised that we saw such similar geographic patterns,” Marshall says. “What we’re drawing from that is that there is widespread contamination of the drug supply with fentanyl. It’s not clustered in one city or town.”
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