Nearly a million people have died from drug overdose deaths in the past two decades, but a growing number of deaths in recent years include dangerous synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. First synthesized as a pain killer in 1960 by Belgian chemist Paul Jansen, it has proven to be a useful drug to help patients suffering from painful injuries.
But it wasn’t until the last decade that the drug entered the black market and began to truly destroy lives and communities across the US.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between February 2021 and February 2022, more than 108,000 people will die of drug overdoses in the US. More than 70% of them contained fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
A Michigan official details the harrowing moment he collapsed from fentanyl exposure
One of the main drivers of fentanyl’s proliferation in recent years has been cheaper production methods. While other plant-derived drugs like heroin and cocaine require growing and harvesting, synthetic drugs like fentanyl are less expensive — both for producers and users.
“(Heroin) production is expensive and time-consuming because you have to use the actual poppies from the poppies. With fentanyl being a synthetic drug, you eliminate that process and it’s very profitable,” a Los Angeles police officer and drug recognition expert told Fox News Digital. “A legal 40-milligram pill of OxyContin is about $40 bucks. You can get these illegal pills, like M-30s, for $10 or $15 bucks each.”
The expert asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
For this officer, who has been in the force for almost two decades, the effect of this drug has affected the rich and the poor.
“I feel like fentanyl touches everybody. Because you have your different forms,” the officer said. “You have people who are just using it in powder form — they’re smoking it out of foil — your transients on Skid Row. And then you have your big-name celebrities like (rapper) Mac Miller or (MLB player) Tyler. Skaggs, the drugs they want. have enough money to buy, but they … unknowingly overdose on fentanyl.”
Ben Westhoff, an investigative journalist and author, describes the rise of the fentanyl epidemic in his book, “Fentanyl, Inc.,“It became a supply-driven phenomenon until dealers really realized that they could make a lot more money by discounting other drugs with fentanyl.”
“No one saw this coming. Partly the production methods were simple. A new production method was invented,” Westhoff said.
Westhoff noted the modern crisis in 2005, when US lawmakers were cracking down on methamphetamine in the US when the US Senate banned over-the-counter sales of cold drugs containing pseudoephedrine, commonly used to make methamphetamine.
A Virginia county has reported the presence of an opioid more deadly than fentanyl
Subsequently, many backwoods meth labs scattered throughout the US moved to Mexico. These labs, Westhoff said, evolved into “superlabs” that received precursor materials directly from China, a relationship that continues today.
Now, the chemicals used to make fentanyl are sold almost entirely from China to Mexican drug cartels. Cartels package fentanyl into other drugs like Xanax and Adderall and ship them to the US to sell on the black market. Consequently, many Americans who die from fentanyl-related overdose deaths don’t even know they were using it.
One of the many victims was Thomas Oelrich Jr., who died at age 28 of a fentanyl-related overdose. His mother, Mary Pratt-Weiss, told Fox News Digital that her son had struggled with addiction in the past, but started to get his life back on track and enrolled in a rehab program.
“He started sharing and leading Heroin Anonymous meetings. He was helping a lot of people get sober. He was truly an icon in the community. Everyone knew him, wherever he went. He always lit up a room,” Pratt-Weiss said. .
Olrik is also a talented artist and does well financially by selling his artwork at festivals.
“He would do these huge murals while the bands were playing. And people would watch him perform the painting,” Pratt-Weiss said.
However, things took a turn for the worse with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Olrik, prone to anxiety and panic attacks, took a turn for the worse. He died of an overdose on July 19, 2021. Olrick’s autopsy report revealed that he had Klonopin, a highly addictive drug used to treat panic attacks, and fentanyl in his system.
“The fact that he had Klonopin and fentanyl in his system tells me he was stressed and he probably wanted to calm him down a little bit,” Pratt-Weiss said. “But I highly doubt he’d take enough to OD if he knew what was in it.”
California border officials bust a net of nearly 90 pounds of meth and fentanyl in a matter of hours
Olrik’s story could have happened to anyone. That’s why Pratt-Weiss, who now aims to educate the public about the dangers of fentanyl, says the drug doesn’t recognize race, class or gender.
“I have a friend now 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 just bought a house, they lost twin daughters to fentanyl in October of last year.”
However, it is highly unlikely that the US will completely stop fentanyl from entering the country. All the sources that Fox News Digital spoke to on the issue said that not enough resources are being devoted to the problem. In some places the local authorities are also lagging behind in terms of funding.
“I think we’re definitely understaffed. We have to treat it like Covid, it’s more of a deck situation than anything else,” Westhoff said.
Despite the lack of resources, both Westhoff and Pratt-Weiss agree that educating the public can go a long way in combating the problem.
Click here to get the Fox News app
“Education is key. People need to talk to their kids. They need to tell them not to try something. They need to scrutinize their kids’ lessons under 18 (and) educate them in the sense that these things, even antidepressants, can be laced,” Pratt-Weiss said. “Everybody, sooner or later, is going to be affected by someone they know. I believe it’s very important right now for people to be educated.”