Focus on Fentanyl: Awareness week shines light on emerging threat
Last month when there were nearly 30 overdoses in Huntington in just four hours, West Virginia was once again in the headlines because of a drug-related issue. But this story was different, in part because the drugs involved were much more powerful than what we’re used to seeing. What is this latest threat, what’s being done about it, and what can you do?
This is National Heroin and Opioid Awareness Week, which has been established in order to shine a light on the threat posed by this class of drugs. Opioids provide rewarding, euphoric effects that can lead to dependence and addiction. The opioid family includes prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, illicit drugs like heroin, and fentanyl, which has emerged as one of the deadliest substances being distributed today. The focus is on fentanyl this week because it has led to clusters of overdoses in our region, similar to what we saw in Huntington in August.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that most of us know as an end-stage cancer drug applied via patches to the skin. But the version being sold on the streets of West Virginia is produced clandestinely in China and Mexico before it reaches the Mountain State. Fentanyl is very powerful – 100 times more powerful than morphine - and is often mixed with heroin by dealers to enhance the high experienced by users. Drug cartels are shipping large quantities of it to the United States to make up for declining marijuana profits.
More deaths than ever before in West Virginia are being linked to fentanyl. The consumption of just two milligrams of the substance can be fatal. In the last two years, over 40% of those who died from a drug overdose in our state had fentanyl in their system, a number much higher than we’ve ever seen.
Carfentanil, which is not intended for human consumption but instead meant to tranquilize large animals, has also been introduced into the supply chain. This super drug is believed to have contributed to the rash of overdoses that occurred in our region over the past few months.
But as the substances get stronger, so must we, in the areas of enforcement, prevention and treatment. The task forces in West Virginia are aggressively targeting those who profit from the sale of fentanyl and other substances, and taking the steps necessary to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations. Supplemental federal funding has been secured to support local enforcement efforts. Additionally, many police departments in the state are now treating overdoses like crime scenes in order to better identify the source of supply. Prevention professionals are working diligently, and while there is still a gap in treatment resources I remain hopeful that it will soon be closed.
What can you do? If you have children or grandchildren, you should reject the notion that it can't happen in your family. It can, and it has, in thousands of West Virginia households. Talk to your children about drugs; ask the tough questions; and be prepared to answer the questions that they fire back. Help them to understand that the threat posed by fentanyl and other opioids is very real, that it's here in West Virginia, and that one time is all it takes. If we arm young people with the facts, then hopefully they’ll stop and think before they take a pill or powder provided by a friend, a teammate, or a dealer.
You can also help by calling the police when you see suspicious activity, ensuring that pills in your home are properly secured, and participating in drug take back days. You can become a recovery coach and help those who are struggling with the disease of addiction, or volunteer at a hospital to help babies who have been exposed to opioids while in the womb.
Let's not allow what happened recently in Huntington to become the new normal. Instead, let's all do our part to push back against this threat and begin down a path toward a stronger and healthier West Virginia.
William J. Ihlenfeld, II, is the United States Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia.