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Nearly a million people have died from drug overdose death over the past two decades, but a growing majority of those deaths in recent years have involved dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. First synthesized by belgian chemist Paul Janssen as an analgesic in 1960, it proved to be a useful medicine to help patients with traumatic injuries.
But it wasn’t until the last decade or so that the drug made its way onto the black market and really started destroying lives and communities across the United States.
The Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 108,000 people in the United States died of drug overdoses between February 2021 and February 2022. Of those, more than 70% involved fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
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One of the main drivers of the proliferation of fentanyl in recent years has been cheaper production methods. While other plant derivatives drugs like heroin and cocaine need to be grown and grown, synthetic drugs like fentanyl are cheaper for both producers and consumers.
“Production (of heroin) is expensive and time consuming because you have to use the real poppy from the poppy fields. Because fentanyl is a synthetic drug, you eliminate that process and it’s much more lucrative,” an officer said. Los Angeles police and drug recognition expert told Fox News Digital. “A legitimate 40-milligram OxyContin pill will cost around $40. You can get these illicit pills, like M-30, for $10 or $15 each.”
The expert asked to remain anonymous as the expert was not authorized to speak to the media.
The officer, who has been with the force for about two decades, has seen drugs affect rich and poor alike.
“I feel like fentanyl affects everyone. Because you have your different forms,” the officer said. “You have people who just use it in powder form – they smoke it over foil – your transients in Skid Row. And then you have your big name celebrities like (rapper) mac miller or (MLB player) Tyler Scaggs, who have more than enough money to buy whatever drug they want, but they’re…unknowingly overdosing on fentanyl.”
Investigative journalist and author Ben Westhoff, who chronicled the rise of the fentanyl epidemic in his book, “Fentanyl, Inc.,“said that it wasn’t until dealers really realized they could make a lot more money by suppressing other drugs with fentanyl that it became a sort of supply-driven phenomenon.”
“No one saw it coming. Part of it was because production methods got simplified. A new production method was discovered,” Westhoff said.
Westhoff traces the modern crisis back to 2005, when US lawmakers were cracking down on meth in the United States. The US Senate has banned over-the-counter sales of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, which is commonly used to make methamphetamine.
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Subsequently, many of the backcountry meth labs scattered across the United States moved to Mexico. These labs, Westhoff said, became “super labs” that received precursor ingredients directly from China, a relationship that continues today.
Now, chemicals used to make fentanyl are almost entirely sold to Mexican drug cartels from China. The cartels then package the fentanyl into other drugs like Xanax and Adderrall, and ship them to the United States to be sold on the black market. As a result, most Americans who die of fentanyl-related overdose deaths don’t even know they’re using it.
One of those many victims was Thomas Olrik Jr., who died of a fentanyl-related overdose at the age of 28. His mother, Mary Pratt-Weiss, told Fox News Digital that her son had struggled with addiction in the past but was starting to get his life back on track and was enrolled in a rehab program.
“He started sharing and running Hero Anonymous meetings. He was helping a lot of people get sober. He was truly an icon in the community. Everyone knew him, everywhere he went. He was always lighting up a room “, said Pratt-Weiss. .
Olrik was also a talented artist and was doing well financially, selling his works at festivals.
“He was doing these huge murals during bands would play. And people were watching him paint,” Pratt-Weiss said.
Things took a toll, however, with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Olrik, who was prone to anxiety and panic attacks, got worse. He died of an overdose on July 19, 2021. Olrik’s autopsy report revealed he had Klonopin, a highly addictive drug used to treat panic attacks, and fentanyl in his system.
“The fact that Klonopin and fentanyl were in his system tells me he was stressed, and he probably just wanted a little something to calm him down,” Pratt-Weiss said. “But I highly doubt he would have taken enough for OD if he knew what was in it.”
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Olrik’s story could have happened to anyone. That’s why Pratt-Weiss, now on a mission to educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl, says the drug doesn’t recognize any race, class or gender.
“I now have a friend whose daughter is addicted to fentanyl, and she literally went through hell trying to get her into rehab,” Pratt-Weiss said. “My neighbor behind me who just bought the house, they just lost a twin daughter to fentanyl in October of last year.”
Yet it is highly unlikely that the United States could stopping fentanyl completely to enter the country. All sources who spoke to Fox News Digital about the matter said there weren’t enough resources dedicated to the issue. In some cases, local authorities are even stepping back in terms of funding.
“I really think we’re way off the mark. We have to treat it like COVID, a situation where everyone is on deck,” Westhoff said.
Despite a lack of resources, Westhoff and Pratt-Weiss agreed that public education can go a long way in tackling this problem.
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“Education is key. People have to talk to their kids. They have to tell them not to try anything. They have to look at the texts of their kids under 18 (and) educate them in the sense that those things, even antidepressants, can be laced,” Pratt-Weiss said. “Everyone, sooner or later, will have someone they know who was affected. I think it’s super important right now that people are educated.”