They Still Call It An “Opioid Epidemic.” Why’s That?

The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently reported that, while overdose deaths have come down slightly over the past year in the Cleveland metropolitan region, a new killer has emerged on the scene: cocaine mixed with fentanyl.

The Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office informs the public that cocaine was involved in 45 percent of overdose deaths last year, the highest rate in ten years. It reports that cocaine is being found in combination with fentanyl with increasing frequency, and it is believed that many cocaine users are either unaware of the presence of fentanyl or, if they are, they are uncertain as to the amount that is present. The highly potent fentanyl (roughly 100 times more potent than morphine) causes them to asphyxiate and die.

This phenomenon was reported a year ago in Massachusetts and the New England region. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl has been supplanting heroin as the narcotic often combined with cocaine to affect “speedballing”—a dangerous technique designed to minimize the negative effects of the “come-down” after the rush from cocaine. 

The rise in cocaine-related overdose deaths is also associated with a change in the demographic mix of overdose victims. The Plain Dealer report states:

Historically in Cuyahoga County, opioid deaths have had the most severe impact among white people, and in suburban communities, Gilson said. Cocaine, on the other hand, has largely been linked to overdose deaths among African-Americans, and in urban communities…

“We’re starting to see a rise in fentanyl deaths among African-Americans, but we’re also seeing more cocaine in the fentanyl deaths among the white, suburban residents,” Gilson said. “Now, as those two interface, we start to see more deaths, period.”

One encouraging part of the Plain Dealer story is that the overall overdose rate in Cuyahoga County came down slightly in the past year. Credit has been given to the more liberal distribution of the overdose antidote naloxone as well as the distribution of fentanyl test strips. Originally approved by the FDA for urine drug testing, they are now being used “off-label” to test for the presence of fentanyl in a drug bought on the black market. Distributing naloxone and fentanyl test strips are two harm reduction strategies. 

A Canadian firm, BTNX, manufactures the test strips and has neither sought nor gained approval for their use in this context. The test strips work well for IV heroin users, who adjust their heroin dose or even discard the heroin according to the amount of fentanyl detected. Public health officials are concerned that it might be more difficult to use the test strips with cocaine, because the substance must be liquified in order to test it. In most cases, the heroin is already in liquid form because it is intended for injection.

Sadly, in many states with anti-paraphernalia laws, such as my home state of Arizona, fentanyl test strips are illegal for distribution because they are considered a form of drug paraphernalia. Last June the Maryland legislature removed fentanyl test strips from that state’s drug paraphernalia list.

As public health and law enforcement authorities more openly discuss the prevalence of cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamines in the overdose statistics, it is reasonable to ask why they and the media continue to refer to this as an “opioid epidemic” when it is obviously a “prohibition crisis.”