In March, a batch of illegally made fentanyl, a potent opiate used to treat extreme pain, began making its way through the streets in Sacramento County, Central California. A clear liquid estimated to be 50 times stronger than heroin, the fentanyl was sold to unsuspecting users, according to the state drug enforcement agency. The deadly mixture has lead to 11 deaths in the area and more than 50 overdoses.
“(Fentanyl) is a very strong high and not difficult to manufacture,” says Rachel Anderson, executive director of the Sacramento-area Needle Exchange, which provides clean needles to drug users. “Users are looking for a more potent high and there’s always a distributor ready to provide it.”
The spate of deaths in California is the first time the state has seen fatalities linked to fentanyl, but it speaks to a broader opioid addiction — which includes painkillers and heroin. In the American West, addiction to these substances has dramatically increased in the past two decades, and even more rapidly in the last five years.
The spike started a few years after a highly potent prescription painkiller, OxyContin, was introduced in 1995. By the late 2000’s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was reporting widespread over-prescription and high numbers of patients becoming addicted. In 2010, stricter regulations on prescription pain medicine swiftly limited supply. But despite the crackdowns, pain pill abuse is still a major epidemic. What’s more, those regulations have been a primary driver of the increase in heroin addiction.
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