Fentanyl-induced overdoses increasing, more drugs being laced with it

Fentanyl-induced overdoses are increasing, and more types of drugs are being laced with it, according to local experts.

In September, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a Public Safety Alert for the first time in six years warning Americans of an increase in the lethality and availability of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl.

Last week, the family of UT linebacker Jake Ehlinger announced that he had died back in May from an accidental overdose of what was believed to be Xanax laced with fentanyl. 

"Here at UT this is something that we’ve really been so concerned about," said Claire Zagorski, program coordinator for the Pharmacy Addiction Research and Medicine Program at UT’s College of Pharmacy. "This used to be something that was fairly well contained to just heroin, but now we’re seeing fentanyl working its way into cocaine and into counterfeit pills and tablets."

For Chrissy Glenn and Robin Lindeman, it’s something they’ve seen firsthand working at an addiction treatment center.

"Over the last two years the increase of overdoses that we’ve seen have mostly been related to fentanyl," said Lindeman, executive director for Infinite Recovery.

There are a few potential reasons for this uptick. Drug dealers may be motivated to lace their product with fentanyl because its potency can create stronger addicts, and therefore, loyal customers. It is also cheaper to cut drugs with it.

"A semi-truck full of heroin, in terms of potency, could be replaced by a briefcase-size amount of fentanyl," said Zagorski. "That right there is a huge economic benefit if you’re moving or selling drugs."

In other cases, it may be an accidental contamination by a drug dealer.

"If they’re cutting their heroin with fentanyl and they brush the table off, and they don’t brush every single part of those fentanyl particles off, and they put Xanax on the table, the Xanax can get laced with fentanyl," said Lindeman.

Fentanyl’s potency is what makes it so dangerous to often unsuspecting consumers. "Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid," said Lindeman. "I’m talking 100 times more potent than morphine."

It’s something the Travis County Sheriff’s Office is very much aware of as well. They equip all of their deputies with Narcan, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose. They also provide Narcan for inmates to have on hand when they are released.

"This is a problem that’s not in just one area of Travis County, it’s not in just one age group, one demographic, or one economic area," said Kristen Dark, public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. "It’s terrifying to think that a teenager who’s stressed out by exams could purchase one pill thinking it’s a Xanax, and it’s actually laced with fentanyl that can kill."

At UT Austin, that’s the message they’re trying to get across to students. "At this point, if you have a pill or a friend offers you a pill at a party or to study with, unless you know that that pill came from a pharmacy, you’re taking a big gamble by using it," said Zagorski.

One resource available for UT students is a program called SHIFT. The overall goal of the program is to shift the culture and discussion around drug use on campus.

There are also resources for Texans who would like to have Narcan on hand. More Narcan Please and The Texas Overdose and Naloxone Initiative can provide free naloxone on request.

CDC report: Drug overdose deaths hit record high in 2020
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