Doctors are prescribing the synthetic opioid drug fentanyl less than ever before, and yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Drug Enforcement Agency have released data showing the drug or its derivatives are behind nearly half of all drug overdoses in the country.
According to the Health Testing Centers, located in Florida, every state except for Wyoming has seen a rise in fatal overdoses caused by the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Utah has seen a 770% increase in deaths caused by the drug, the 26th highest in the country.
Dr. Eric Barker is a general psychiatrist and the medical director for the Intermountain DaySpring Clinic. The clinic is Utah’s opioid treatment program in Logan, Utah. He said problems with opioid addiction stem from the over-prescription of painkillers in the 90s and early 2000s.
“The proportion of the drugs of abuse among the opioids that we see people using does seem to be a little bit different in Utah," Barker said. "Utah has typically had a little bit of a higher level of prescription pain medication abuse compared to some other states."
Barker trained and practiced in New England, where fentanyl overdoses are even higher, before he moved to Utah.
"Back east, there was more heroin and fentanyl came on the scene a lot sooner, a few years sooner than it started showing up in Utah," he said. "But, at this point, Utah is starting to see a decreases in prescription pain medication abuse, and it is trending more heavily toward heroin and fentanyl.”
Why is this?
“We were seeing the number of opioid overdose deaths increasing, so there was a push to limit the amount of pain medications available," Barker said. "That eventually led toward heroin becoming the next drug of choice. It was more easily available, it was cheaper, and so when the prescription pain medicine started to be prescribed in lower amounts, people who were addicted sort of switched to that.”
Barker also said he’s seen patient results that tested positive for the drug who weren’t aware they were using opioids, including samples from patients who thought they were just using marijuana. He said the fentanyl is so potent that even a milligram can be the difference between life and death, and that’s why there’s such a high risk of overdose at this time.
"It's not hard to overdose on fentanyl," Barker said. "The people who are making the drugs [people are overdosing on] are not trained scientists, obviously."
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, more information on opioid treatment programs in your area can be found at samhsa.gov.