“He Did Not Want to Die”: Inside Fentanyl’s Deadly Rein

Swainson Brown was a beloved chef at a restaurant on Shelter Island, near New York City. One night in August, he consumed cocaine, which authorities said he had no idea was laced with fentanyl.

Mr. Brown was among six people in the community who died in three days due to the drug.

Glenn Petry, Mr. Brown’s friend and employer, told the New York Times “He did not want to die. That was without question the farthest thing that he imagined would happen to him that night after using cocaine.”

The Guardian relates another devastating case: in August 2020, a 13-year old named Luca Manuel was about to start eighth grade in Redding, California.

The week prior, he’d gotten a root canal, and his mouth still hurt. He sent a message on social media to find marijuana for the pain. Instead, the dealer suggested Percocet.

Luca didn’t know that the pill, which had been pressed to look like the real pain medication, was actually a counterfeit laced with fentanyl, a substance 30 times stronger than heroin. He died of drug poisoning that afternoon while innocently playing a video game.

Fentanyl’s deadly rise has contributed to thousands of stories like these. Countless people who have never used opioids are dying from a single, accidental encounter with the drug. These are people who unwittingly consumed it and didn’t know that what they were taking was contaminated with a deadly dose of a synthetic opioid.

What’s more – even for regular opioid users, it is almost impossible to judge a safe amount of fentanyl. There are no quality control standards, and different dealers use varying methods to add the drug to other substances – everything from cannabis to pills and heroin.

As the supply of black market prescription pills has been tamped down—due to pandemic supply chain issues and government efforts to stem the opioid crisis, more and more fentanyl has found its way into the supply. Alarming numbers of people are taking legitimate-looking Percocet or Xanax pills and dying.

In September, the DEA issued a public safety alert: More than 40 percent of black-market prescription pills contain lethal amounts of fentanyl.

The latest data from the CDC illustrates a continually worsening trend. More than 100,000 people died from overdoses in the US in a 12-month period ending in April, marking the biggest increase ever seen in the country – and, according to drug researchers, it’s only rising each month.

Fentanyl is responsible for most of these deaths—at least 60% of the fatal overdoses, marking a 50% increase in a single year, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told the Guardian.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “It’s an epidemic within the pandemic.” Deaths from fentanyl were already on the rise across the country, but the pandemic supercharged their speed and intensity.

Although no one was surprised that drug usage rose during the pandemic, few experts expected the unprecedented surge of illicit substances into the country.

According to recent reporting in the New York Times, several factors contributed to this influx:

“As borders were closed to thwart the coronavirus, cartels created stockpiles, leading to a spike, said Bridget G. Brennan, New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor.

At the same time, several drug dealers said in interviews, domestic dealers turned to fentanyl as a cheap way to bulk out thin wares.

As lockdowns lifted and border crossings began to normalize, fentanyl flooded in. In just the first six months of 2021, the special prosecutor’s office confiscated more than in any previous year.”

What this means for most people is that we have now entered a climate where even casual, seemingly harmless drug use has the potential to be deadly. For regular opioid users, the stakes are even higher.

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