Each day, it seems that a new story emerges about the U.S. opioid epidemic. Tens of thousands of people have been affected by this epidemic, yet the rate of prescription opioid and heroin overdoses continues to climb. Now, in the United States and Canada officials found carfentanil linked heroin overdoses.
What Is Carfentanil?
Carfentanil is one of the dozens of synthetic opioids that have begun to enter illicit North American drug markets. Traditionally, individuals derived opioid drugs from natural sources. For instance, heroin comes from opium poppy plants. Scientists can create morphine using poppies as well, and medical professionals heavily use this drug. However, once a drug’s chemical signature is known, it is technically possible to synthesize it in a laboratory. Other opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone, are synthetic compounds.
Carfentanil is a new synthetic opioid compound that has recently hit U.S. and Canadian markets. Like its name implies, carfentanil is chemically related to fentanyl. Physicians prescribe fentanyl for pain conditions, but it can cause drug abuse problems and overdose. Many sell it on the illicit drug market or combine it with heroin to increase potency and reduce cost. Unlike fentanyl, carfentanil has no legitimate medical purpose. It is exceptionally potent and dangerous, which has contributed to its role in an increasing number of overdoses.
Carfentanil is 100 Times More Potent than Fentanyl
There are several factors that make carfentanil so dangerous. The first is its potency. Carfentanil is an estimated 10,000 times more potent than morphine or pure heroin. It is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which has itself been the culprit in hundreds of overdose deaths. The potency of carfentanil means that it’s very difficult to control its use. With a potency so high, the “safe” amount a person can take is exceptionally low. Amounts as small as 20 micrograms, about the weight of a single poppy seed, can be deadly. This dramatically increases the drug’s overdose potential.
The government doesn’t regulate carfentanil’s production process, which makes it even more dangerous. Synthetic opioids with clinical applications, such as prescription pain pills, are synthesized in a tightly controlled environment. Each pill contains the same amount of the active ingredient, meaning that a patient knows how much he or she is taking. This isn’t the case for synthetic carfentanil. Illicit laboratories in China synthesize the drug, but the government doesn’t regulate for safety or quality. That means that the number of active opioids in one batch of carfentanil may vary widely. Therefore, the drug dealers have no control over the dosage when adding carfentanil to heroin or other opioid drugs. This unpredictability makes it very likely that using carfentanil will have adverse consequences.
Finally, carfentanil is particularly dangerous because many opioid users do not even realize they are taking the drug. Dealers have been mixing carfentanil into heroin in an attempt to make it more powerful. Unfortunately, this can cause heroin users to inadvertently take the drug without realizing its true potency. Due to the high prevalence of carfentanil, police in Ohio are no longer allowed to test opiates themselves because touching carfentanil or even breathing it in could have fatal consequences.
Carfentanil Linked Heroin Overdoses: Where to Go From Here
Thus far, carfentanil has popped up in several municipalities across North America. For instance, Canadian border officials in Vancouver discovered a package containing one kilogram of carfentanil. This single kilogram of the drug contained enough carfentanil to cause several million fatal overdoses. In Akron, Ohio, 250 people overdosed on heroin during a three-week period in July. More than 20 of these overdoses were fatal. The spike in heroin overdoses was linked to a batch of heroin laced with carfentanil.
So what can we do about the rise of carfentanil in the United States and Canada? Public health officials stress the need to tackle the larger problem of opioid abuse in this country. Expanding access to treatment resources, improving education about the consequences of opioid abuse, increasing the availability of opioid antagonists such as Narcan, and boosting public awareness about the scope of the heroin overdose problem are important steps to take. Only with concerted public effort can we fight back against carfentanil and other synthetic opioids.
Deadly opioid carfentanil bound for Calgary seized in Vancouver, CBC/Radio-Canada. Retrieved on 08/18/2016.
Officials Warn Of New Drug Causing Large Number Of Overdoses In Pa., CBS Local. Retrieved on 08/18/2016.
Opiate Overdoses in Ohio County in 2016 Already Equal to Number in 2015, EMS World. Retrieved on 08/18/2016.