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  • Writer's pictureJarrod Carter

Should Australians be concerned about Fentanyl?

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin, is extremely effective at killing pain, but sadly, also drug users. In the US in 2021, 71,238 people died from overdosing on Fentanyl. That’s one death every 7 minutes and 22 seconds. In San Francisco, Fentanyl use is so widespread as to cause, on average, two Fentanyl deaths per day. By contrast, in 2021 there were 49,000 people who died from gun violence. That’s right, in the gun loving USA where there are 1.2 guns for every single man, woman and child, fentanyl is still 45% more lethal than firearms.

You may think that you don’t know anyone who would use fentanyl. It’s an opioid so surely it is mostly abused as a heroin substitute or taken by those with pre-existing opioid addictions. However, as this article will explain, it is not only drug addicts being killed.

Fentanyl in Australia

In Australia, Fentanyl has mostly been available on the illicit drug market in the form of patches. These patches are made by pharmaceutical companies to remove the danger of overdose by precisely delivering the drug to manage severe pain. Fentanyl, like many other opioids, has primarily been abused in Australia as a result of “doctor shopping”, theft, or selling prescribed doses.

It appears that criminal organisations are trying to change that. In August 2022, the Australian Federal Police seized the largest shipment ever detected in Australia. 11.2 kilograms of pure powdered fentanyl was discovered among cargo from Canada. This might not sound like much, but it actually translates to approximately 5.5 million potentially lethal doses. That’s one fatal dose for every person in Australia aged in their 20’s.

Fentanyl is so potent that only 2mg can cause a fatal overdose. That is the equivalent weight of 4 grains of salt. Just think about drug dealers trying to accurately dilute the pure product with cutting agents in a dingy bathtub before they package it and sell it to a misguided soul chasing a cheap high.

Where did it come from?

In recent times, well-organised crime syndicates have taken advantage of the anonymous digital economy. In China or India, the precursor chemicals for fentanyl are manufactured. They are then shipped to the drug cartels in South America. Clandestine laboratories then use the precursor chemicals to synthesise fentanyl. The final step is to smuggle the drug into a rich country like the United States where it can be sold for a premium. With the US market flooded with Fentanyl, it now appears the cartels have their sights set on other wealthy countries, like Australia.

One reason why the crime syndicates love Fentanyl is that it is extremely potent in its pure form. This means it is very easy to smuggle across borders. Given the illicit supply chains of Fentanyl, it is not surprising that it reached our shores in August 2022. Consider that a one kilogram bag of powder is enough to kill 500,000 people. Just think how easy it would be to transport a one kilogram bag of sugar in your car while driving through a checkpoint.

The scary thing about Fentanyl deaths in America, is that it is not always affecting the types of people you would expect. For something that is similar to heroin, you would assume the deaths would be those who are homeless, heavily addicted and accepting of the dangers. It’s easy to have the image of a “junkie” in mind. We can then believe that our children and friends could never ingest it. However, Fentanyl is popping up in unexpected places and killing people when they have no idea that they are even taking the drug.

Counterfeit Prescription

All Australians should be wary of taking anything considered “prescription” if not obtained from a pharmacy and prescribed by your own doctor. Many people are dying in the US taking what they believe to be prescription painkillers, which turn out to be counterfeits laced with a deadly dose of Fentanyl.

The sad story of Sarah Claudio Grizzel should be a warning to all. She was 31 years old when she died. The autopsy report from the El Paso County Coroner’s Office indicated accidental fentanyl overdose was the cause of death. Her mother-in-law says she doesn’t believe Claudio-Grizzel knew she was putting fentanyl into her body. “She had back problems because of a nasty accident and so she had befriended someone that lived across the hall from them. She had asked them for a pain pill until she could get to the pain management clinic,” said Stephanie Higbee.

Or take 13-year-old Kaysen Villarreal from Texas. This middle-school boy passed away from taking a counterfeit Percocet pill during a sleepover with a friend. Percocet is a pain killer which includes the opioid oxycodone. This fake pill contained a fatal dose of fentanyl. Similarly Joshua Gillihan, passed away at the age of 14. After dabbling with marijuana, he obtained what he thought was Percocet and this decision to take a pill cost his life.

In the US, in 2021, 77% of all teen overdose deaths involved fentanyl. Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explained that unlike adults, it is not heroin laced with fentanyl that is causing these deaths in teenagers. Instead, teens typically seek out prescription opioids such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and hydrocodone, along with benzodiazepines. Unfortunately, many of these teens end up purchasing counterfeit versions of these medications, which look like the real thing but are contaminated with fentanyl.

Mixing With Other Drugs

But it’s not just in fake pills. In the US, they are also finding all forms of drugs being laced with Fentanyl. For example, if a batch of cocaine had been diluted so much as to have little effect, the drug dealer may add cheap fentanyl to the mix. This practice has deadly consequences.

In the US in August 2021, the Southold Town Police Department began receiving 911 calls on a Wednesday, and the calls continued without pause for three days. The callers reported unresponsive individuals, including a 34-year-old woman in Greenport Village, a 25-year-old man in Southold, a 30-year-old man in Southold, a 27-year-old man in Greenport Village, a 32-year-old man in East Marion, and a 40-year-old man in Shelter Island. In total, at least eight people in several small towns along Long Island’s North Fork overdosed, and six of them, all under the age of 40, died. Their deaths were caused by cocaine that had been laced with fentanyl.

Fentanyl is also being found in ecstasy and MDMA pills in the US. Jim Rauh, a Texan whose son died from fentanyl poisoning six years ago, recently raised awareness of the issue. He expressed, "This material is infiltrating our illegal drug supply and poisoning our citizens. It makes you feel good as it’s killing you." The appearance of ecstasy pills, with its bright colours and candy-like appearance, can be deceiving. When laced with fentanyl, it is deadly, making this trend a significant concern.

So what is going to happen in Australia to our teenagers and young adults when Fentanyl starts turning up in party pills at concerts and nightclubs?

Signs of overdose

Every Australian needs to be ready to recognize the signs of fentanyl overdose. It might just save a life. Here are some things to look for:

  • Small, constricted “pinpoint pupils”

  • Falling asleep or losing consciousness

  • Slow, weak, or no breathing

  • Choking or gurgling sounds

  • Limp body

  • Cold and/or clammy skin

  • Discoloured skin (especially in lips and nails)

An effective way to treat Fentanyl overdose is with Naloxone. It is sold under the brand names Prenoxad and Nyxoid, and is a medication capable of providing temporary relief from opioid overdose. By obstructing opioid drugs, such as heroin and oxycodone, from attaching to the opioid receptors in the brain, naloxone works effectively. Naloxone is available in the form of intramuscular injections or intranasal sprays and can be administered by medical personnel, including paramedics, as well as by family, friends, or bystanders in emergency situations where an individual is experiencing an overdose.

If you are concerned about someone close to you with drug issues, please be aware that there is a national "Take Home Naloxone" program. As of 17 February 2023, Naloxone will soon be available free of charge and without a prescription across all participating pharmacies in Australia. Naloxone is also available over the counter from non-participating Take Home Naloxone program pharmacies for a fee. Currently, Naloxone is available by prescription, so any concerns about an overdosing loved-one should be raised with your doctor.

Final Thoughts

I sincerely hope that our Federal Police manage to keep Fentanyl out of the illicit drug trade. However, given how profitable Fentanyl can be, I doubt it can stay out forever. Furthermore, it is so potent that it is very easy to smuggle.

I am worried because so many of my friends are idiots when it comes to risk taking. I know many people who would take a mysterious pill if they’ve been told it contains MDMA. Us Aussies tend to get a bit reckless when in party mode. And people tend to trust the friend who provides the pill, rather than questioning the pill itself.

We don’t know when the wave of Fentanyl is going to hit. I imagine at some point in the future we will see some horrific story about a bunch of kids attending a concert all dying from Fentanyl laced party pills. Then we will know for certain that a large volume has hit the streets.

My advice to those young and old. Before you pop that mysterious pill, consider the pain that your death would cause. Think about your long suffering mum. If you really need to relax and get in the party mood, go down to the bottle shop and get something tasty. If you keep it in moderation and you will definitely wake up in the morning. Because very soon, taking a mysterious party pill, or snorting a line, will not have the same promise.

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