Opinion: Saving lives with fentanyl
When my son was four years old, he was given the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Twice. We were in the hospital emergency room after his finger was smashed in a door. A cheerful nurse gave him fentanyl twice to numb the pain while a doctor sewed him up. At that time, adult men and women were dying by the thousands of overdoses involving fentanyl. Today, they are dying by the tens of thousands.
1. What’s the difference? My son received fentanyl in a legal and regulated environment where it was protected from contamination and accurately dosed. People who die from fentanyl buy it from the underground market where there is no quality control and the dosage is a risky guess. To save lives, we need to find out why people buy contaminated drugs on the streets and why these drugs are getting more and more potent.
The Centers for Disease Control recently released provisional overdose data for 2020, showing that fentanyl is a factor in nearly 85% of opioid overdose deaths.
2. Increased prescription restrictions over the past decade have made legal and regulated drugs more difficult to obtain. But they haven’t stopped consumer demand. As restrictions on legal drugs increase, people are buying illegal drugs. This includes some pain patients who are in desperate need of relief after being cut off from their medications.
3. Basic economics tells us that supply will always meet demand, whether legally or illegally.
However, the suppliers of illegal drugs risk being arrested, so they have to run small packages with big profit margins. Fentanyl does the job perfectly. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
4. Make a small amount extremely profitable. The increase in the potency of drugs is a predictable result of the incentives for prohibition. Today we have fentanyl, but tomorrow it will be carfentanil or a number of more and more potent drugs.
5. The decrease in the availability of legal drugs has led to an increase in the demand for illegal drugs. Ban incentives have made illegal options increasingly powerful while removing quality control. The collision of these political disasters is at the root of today’s overdose epidemic.
Society’s knee-jerk reaction to do anything – anything – to stop overdoses is understandable. More than 100,000 people died last year alone.
6. A breathtaking tragedy. We often look to the criminal justice system to deal with drug problems, but repression is futile. Hundreds of billions of dollars are donated by adult consumers each year, with an endless line of people ready to provide anything drug users want. In order for consumers to stop buying potent and contaminated drugs on the street, they will need to be allowed some form of legal access to quality-controlled options.
It’s an uncomfortable idea for a lot of people, including myself. But the evidence is clear that prohibition causes enormous loss of life. As a person whose deepest values include the sanctity of human life, I must take this into account. Another 100,000 families will pay the ultimate price for our failed drug policies next year alone.
But there is hope. As we look to a new year, we can choose a new course in drug policy. We can explore the less harmful ways to provide adults with access to a safer supply of medicines. And we can simultaneously offer honest risk education as well as help for those struggling with drug addiction. It will give people the best chance to take the most important step towards a prosperous life – staying alive.
Fentanyl did not kill my son. On the contrary, it helped a traumatized little boy get through a harsh night in the hospital. I am grateful for it. He helps thousands of medical patients every day. Fentanyl is not the cause of our overdose epidemic. Our overdose epidemic is the result of policies that encourage consumers to buy potent and tainted drugs on the underground market. Allowing a path to legal and regulated options could save thousands of lives every year.
Christina Dent is the founder and president of the nonprofit End It For Good. Her TEDx Talk details the journey that led her to change her mind about drug policy. She lives with her family in Ridgeland.