Illicit drugs and substances are nothing new, but there is a rising danger present especially in prescription drugs, designer drugs, and heroin, that hasn’t been as prevalent or widespread in the past. As the opioid epidemic continues in the US and Canada, and tens of thousands continue to die, more and more evidence is showing that a sizeable portion of overdose deaths are due to cut and mixed drugs, often sold as pure drugs or unused prescription medication, yet pressed illegally with a dangerous cocktail of various substances in an effort to reduce costs and drive up profits.
It’s not enough to recognize what Xanax, Oxycontin, and Ecstasy look like. Often sold as such but mixed with several other dangerous substances, many illicit drugs sold today are contributing to a rising death toll throughout the country. Even for experienced drug users, or those who have just begun using illegal drugs recreationally, the chances of an accidental overdose increase with every pill.
Particularly dangerous are the synthetic opioid fentanyl and the veterinary tranquilized carfentanil, both of which are so highly potent that mere milligrams are enough to kill a grown adult human. These substances are often improperly mixed into batches of other drugs in order to increase their potency at a low financial cost, but at a high cost of life. While there has never been a good reason to use illegal and/or harmful substances recreationally, drugs have indeed become more dangerous than ever before.
The Opioid Epidemic is Ongoing
While news coverage has dipped in recent months outside of high-profile examples of lawsuits and bankruptcies filed by major companies implicated in the origins of the opioid crisis, the reality remains that the opioid epidemic is alive and well in the United States and Canada.
North America remains the world’s largest consumer of opioids by far, both medically and recreationally, in no small part due to the vast success of numerous efforts made by companies in the 1990s to sell more painkillers and diagnose pain as a treatable condition, especially through pharmacology.
While numerous regulations have helped cut down on the number of pain prescriptions currently being written, the problem has continued to swell in the form of growing amounts of heroin use, especially on the eastern side of the country, while the west coast continues to struggle with recreational prescription drug use. Although opioids are not the only illicit drugs causing overdoses and deaths in the United States, they are responsible for the majority of deaths caused by illegal substances.
An estimated 11.4 million Americans misused prescription opioids in 2017 and 2018, with 2.1 million cases opioid use disorder, and roughly 47,000 deaths caused by opioid overdose, over half of which (28,466) were caused by synthetic opioids other than methadone (which include drugs like fentanyl, usually reserved only for terminal cancer pain).
Fentanyl: How Heroin is Made Even Deadlier
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid analogous to morphine, yet about 50 to 100 times more potent. Synthetic opioids are drugs that interact with opioid receptors in the body yet are not derived from our usual source of opioids, the poppy plant.
While drugs like morphine and heroin were first derived from opium and created to serve as analgesics and anesthetics, often ingested in liquid form, fentanyl was developed into a medical product by way of slow-release skin patches.
Like heroin, codeine, hydrocodone, and other opioids, fentanyl enters the bloodstream and latches onto opioid receptors in cells, triggering an analgesic and euphoric effect. However, its potency means that very little is needed to trigger an overdose, which can cause unconsciousness, slowed breathing, and death.
Legally, fentanyl is used in cases of extreme and debilitating chronic pain, as well as terminal care. Illegally, however, it has been used to reduce the cost and increase the potency of other drugs, including other opioids like heroin, and other illicit substances. Outside of legal substances like alcohol and nicotine, fentanyl is counted as one of, if not the most lethal illicit substance in American history. Like other components used in the production of heroin and designer drugs, fentanyl is imported illegally into the US or Mexico, where it’s used in the production of drugs.
Fake Prescription Drugs and Accidental Overdoses
Not limited to heroin and cocaine, fentanyl is also mixed into fake prescription drugs, which are pressed from the real thing and a number of other substances designed to drive down the cost of production and improve profits. However, this can lead to even more disastrous effects.
While only a small amount of fentanyl is needed to kill the average person, the amount mixed into a single batch is often very low. However, poor mixing practices and no real standards can cause a single pill or hit to be fatal, and the slightest miscalculation on the user’s part (who often doesn’t know they’re consuming fentanyl) can lead to death.
This is further complicated in cases where the drug is mixed into benzodiazepines, tranquilizers, or other depressants. These drugs cause a compound effect with opioids, more often leading to an accidental overdose due to how the brain reacts to the combination of a depressant with an opioid.
When users survive a brush with death and realize that it’s the fentanyl that gave them such a powerful high, some of them actually turn to it as their drug of choice. This, of course, is very dangerous.
Ecstasy and MDMA, and How They Are Different
MDMA is a psychoactive substance colloquially known as ecstasy, yet the two are often very different.
While MDMA is currently being researched under limited capacity as a drug with potential to help treat anxiety and post-traumatic stress, many examples of ecstasy out on the streets today include only a small amount of MDMA, along with a larger cocktail of other substances. Recently, these pills have even included substances like fentanyl.
Regardless of what therapeutic potential pure MDMA may have, ecstasy has become more dangerous than ever. Like other illegal drugs, there are no standards for safety or quality.