The United States is experiencing an unprecedented opioid crisis due to fentanyl, a substance that was born in the 1990s as a powerful pain reliever. It is currently manufactured and distributed illegally and is responsible for the more than 200 deaths that occur daily in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When Megan DeFranco started taking prescription opioids, she never imagined she would end up addicted to fentanyl, the pain reliever that has become the most popular street drug.
Her nightmare began when she lost her health insurance and strict prescription drug regulations prompted her to buy opioids from people who sold them on the streets of Washington DC.
“It’s the only reason I started using street substances,” DeFranco tells the voice of america from the US capital.
It was the bowels of the dark alleys of the American capital where he came across fentanyl. Although he explains that over time the price of this substance increased exponentially, his dependence won the pulse of inflation.
“At that point you’re already addicted, and you can’t live without them,” she adds.
His case is not isolated. Thousands of Americans are addicted to fentanyl, responsible for the increase in overdoses in the country. The National Institute on Drug Abuse of the United States (NIDA) indicates that this substance was the main cause of the 106,000 overdose deaths between 2019 and 2021.
“I think the most important thing for people to understand is that you don’t choose to have this. I thought that what I was taking was a prescription drug. And then there are other people who used because they wanted to, you know, push their luck,” says DeFranco, who says many people don’t remember their first experiences with fentanyl, because, according to her, “what it does is not get you high, it hits you really fast and makes you numb.”
Drowsiness is precisely one of the main symptoms that fentanyl has on the human body, according to NIDA, which also warns that consumers may experience constipation; nausea; confusion, and extreme euphoria.
The director of the institution, the psychiatrist Nora Volkow, details the VOA that fentanyl can also cause “stiffness of the chest”, a syndrome that can affect breathing and, according to the expert, “contributes a lot to mortality”.
But, the brain can also be impacted by this drug: “The overdose can be in such a way that, even if you do not lose consciousness completely, oxygenation of the brain decreases and that produces neuronal damage,” says Volkow.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn that fentanyl can be 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin. Its high potency is precisely what causes a person who starts taking fentanyl to become addicted more quickly, according to Volkow.
Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl is enough to kill a person who is not used to taking drugs, warns the psychiatrist.
“Fentanyl is now in essentially everything,” he tells the VOA Johnny Bailey, a worker at HIPS, a Washington DC harm reduction and mitigation center whose ultimate goal is to get people to kick their drug addiction.
Precisely DeFranco attended one of the center’s programs to detoxify; a process that, according to him details “was not perfect.”
“You have the angel and the devil, and we’re creatures of habit, especially when you’ve been used to something for so long,” he explains.
After several relapses and a lot of effort, he was finally able to get out of drug hell. Three years after completing his detoxification process, he points out that to mitigate the fentanyl crisis the most important thing is to “educate and educate.”
At the center, Bailey is in charge of giving group therapies and teaching how to use Narcan, a drug that was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be sold without a prescription in pharmacies nationwide, and that helps people who suffer from an overdose.
He points out that, although fentanyl can impact everyone regardless of profile, in the US capital the average number of people who overdose on this drug are 54 years old and 82% of them are Afro-descendants.
“It’s very depressing, sometimes, because you’re surrounded by death, and by poverty and all that,” he says of his work. “But, equally, they are some of the best people you will ever meet. And everything we can do to help them is really rewarding”, he explains.
Bailey supports others from his experience, because like DeFranco, he was once addicted to drugs.
“I’ve been sober for ten years,” he says. “When I got my life back on track, I went back to school for a degree in social work, because my goal was to teach people everything I wanted to know. I went from being unemployed, in a gang, to having dropped out of high school and being separated; to have a fantastic marriage,” he notes.
The DEA, a federal organization that fights drug trafficking, believes that the United States is experiencing the most devastating drug crisis in history due to fentanyl.
“With fentanyl, only chemicals are used to produce it. Chemical precursors made in China are shipped to Mexico. The cartels use those chemicals and make pills that are ultimately smuggled into the United States,” she tells the VOA Jacob Galvan, agent of the DEA located in Seattle.
To curb its distribution and consumption, the country recently created a global coalition made up of 90 nations.