A May 22 story in Bloomberg News describes with painstaking detail the underground pipeline through which the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl floods the US market. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, while the Mexican cartel plays a role by using its well-established heroin and methamphetamine distribution networks, most of the fentanyl comes in to the US from China.
The raw materials to make the synthetic opioids are cheap and they can be manufactured rather quickly in small laboratories. The laboratories are constantly creating new variations so as to skirt restrictions the Chinese government places on existing fentanyl analogs. Online distributors throughout China sell these products, making their transactions over the “dark web,” often paid with cryptocurrency, and frequently ship the products to the US via the US Postal Service or United Parcel Service.
Many dealers purchase and use pill presses to make counterfeit OxyContin or Vicodin pills and trick non-medical users into thinking they are buying the real thing. That’s how Prince died. He preferred to abuse Vicodin (hydrocodone). Records show he never got prescriptions from doctors. He died from ingesting counterfeit Vicodin pills he obtained on the black market that turned out to be fentanyl.
The DEA reports this is the way most fentanyl makes its way to the street. As we doctors know, most pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl made for medical use does not get diverted on to the streets. In fact, the forms usually prescribed to outpatients—skin patches, lozenges, buccal films—are not very suitable for non-medical use.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fentanyl was responsible for 26,000 overdose deaths in 2017. But already in 2016 fentanyl accounted for more than 20,000 of the roughly 64,000 total overdose deaths (which include cocaine, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines). Heroin came in second with more than 15,000. In fact, for a few years now, fentanyl and heroin have accounted for the majority of overdose deaths. And a great majority of those deaths had multiple other drugs on board. In New York City in 2016, three-quarters of overdose deaths were from fentanyl and heroin, and 97 percent of overdoses had multiple other drugs on board—46 percent of the time it was cocaine.
Fentanyl overdoses in the US have been rising at a rate of 88 percent per year since 2013. Heroin overdoses have been increasing at a rate of 19 percent per year since 2014 after climbing 33 percent per year from 2010-2014. Meanwhile, overdose deaths from prescription-type opioids have been increasing at a stable rate of 3 percent per year since 2009.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports non-medical use of prescription opioids peaked in 2012, and total prescription opioid use in 2014 was lower than in 2012. And the survey repeatedly reports less than 25 percent of non-medical users see a doctor in order to get a prescription. Three-quarters obtain their drugs through a friend or family member or a drug dealer.
Meanwhile, while all this is going on, policymakers in Washington and in state capitals seem intent on getting the opioid prescription rate down further. State-based prescription drug monitoring programs have succeeded in reducing the prescription of high-dose opioids by over 41 percent since 2010, the peak year of opioid prescribing. And opioid production quotas, set by the DEA, were reduced 25 percent last year and another 20 percent this year, generating acute shortages of injectables in hospitals across the nation that is harming patients.
With all the evidence that the majority of non-medical users are not patients—with all the evidence that prescription rates have come down while overdose rates keep going up—with all the evidence of fentanyl and heroin flooding the black market and causing those deaths, it is time for policymakers to disabuse themselves of the false narrative to which they’ve been stubbornly clinging. This narrative blames the overdose problem on doctors prescribing pain relievers to their patients. The overdose problem has always been primarily caused by non-medical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market created by drug prohibition. And our current restrictive policy is only driving up the death rate by pushing these users to more dangerous drugs while making patients suffer in the process.
What’s the definition of insanity?