By Pat Anson, Editor
A new report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Association about the national threat posed by heroin may tell us more about another illegal opioid – fentanyl -- than it does about heroin.
The recently unclassified report, which you can read by clicking here, documents a stunning 248% increase in overdose deaths involving heroin from 2010 to 2014. Over 10,500 Americans died from heroin overdoses in 2014 alone.
But it turns out many of those deaths may have actually been caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. We’re not talking about pharmaceutical grade fentanyl legally prescribed in transdermal patches or lozenges to treat chronic pain, but bootleg white powder fentanyl manufactured in China and smuggled into the U.S.
The DEA says there were 5,544 deaths caused by fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in 2014, but admits “the true number is most likely higher.” The actual number is not known because many coroners and state crime laboratories do not test for fentanyl.
What medical examiners do often test for in suspected drug overdoses is heroin – and that is why the statistics on heroin should be taken with a grain of salt. Because the real culprit is often fentanyl.
“Most of the areas affected by the fentanyl overdoses are in the eastern United States, where white powder heroin is used,” the DEA report states. “Fentanyl is most commonly mixed with white powder heroin or is sold disguised as white powder heroin.”
Massachusetts and Rhode Island – two eastern states with big heroin problems – recently came out with reports showing that fentanyl, not heroin, was to blame for nearly 60 percent of their opioid overdose deaths. The states used toxicology tests that are far more accurate than the death certificate codes used by the DEA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The DEA and CDC overdose statistics are muddied even further by the fact that heroin deaths are “often undercounted” and blamed on morphine, a prescription painkiller.
“Many medical examiners are reluctant to characterize a death as heroin related,” the DEA admits. “Thus many heroin deaths are reported as morphine-related deaths. Further, there is no standardized system for reporting drug related deaths in the United States. The manner of collecting and reporting death data varies with each medical examiner and coroner.”
Why does any of this matter to chronic pain patients? Because deaths caused by fentanyl and heroin are being lumped together with overdoses caused by prescription painkillers. The CDC has been doing it for years to build a case against opioid pain medication and to justify its release of guidelines that discourage doctors from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.
Prescribing of opioid pain medication has been in decline for several years and hydrocodone prescriptions have fallen by 30 percent since 2011. Yet the CDC claims there was a sudden spike in opioid analgesic deaths in 2014 and that nearly 19,000 Americans died.
Some pain patients – no longer able to get opioids legally – are turning to the streets for pain relief. And the DEA report acknowledges that patients are now being targeted by drug dealers selling counterfeit medication.
“Hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescriptions pills, some containing deadly amounts of fentanyl, have been introduced into U.S. drug markets, exacerbating the fentanyl and opioid crisis,” the DEA report says. “Motivated by enormous profit potential, traffickers are exploiting high consumer demand for prescription medications by producing inexpensive, fraudulent prescription pills containing fentanyl.
“The equipment and materials necessary to produce these counterfeit drugs are widely available online for a small initial investment, greatly reducing the barrier of entry into production for small-scale drug trafficking groups and individuals. In addition, fentanyl pill press operations have been identified in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, indicating a vast expansion of the traditional illicit fentanyl market.”
The DEA says counterfeit medication caused at least 19 deaths this year in California and Florida. But, like the statistics for fentanyl and heroin, the actual number may never be known.
When asked to comment on the DEA report, a spokesperson for the CDC told us that "the large distribution of pills seems to be a new threat that we are still assessing."