28 February 2017

HEALTH - Fentanyl Crisis Impacting People and Animals Around the World

The opioid crisis in North America is taking lives.

Synthetic opioids like carfentanil, W-18, and especially fentanyl, are showing up in greater numbers by the year, and causing deaths not only among individuals who use the drugs, but also among law enforcement officers and K-9 unit dogs.

The number of fatal fentanyl overdoses in the US jumped 79% between 2012 and 2014, and in eight American states - Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland and North Carolina – the fatal overdose rate jumped 174% between 2013 and 2014.

And the opioid crisis isn’t slowing down.

Estonia, a small country with one of the strongest economies in the European Union, has been dealing with a fentanyl crisis for years.

In 2002, there were 105 drug overdose fatalities, and 90 percent of those were fentanyl.

The synthetic drug filled a gap in the drug supply caused by the Taliban’s ban on opium and the resulting scarcity of heroin on the streets.

Although Estonia’s economy was, and is, one of the strongest in Europe, the issue of fentanyl addiction remains stubbornly entrenched.

HIV rates and Hep-C rates are significantly higher than the European average because most users take fentanyl intravenously.

Fentanyl causes more overdoses than the heroin that it replaced in Estonia, and causes more overdoses than unadulterated heroin in North America.

The drug is deadlier, and the DEA has warned that exposure to even a small amount of the powdered form can cause major health issues.

But the opioid crisis is much bigger than fentanyl.

In Estonia, the problem started with a generation of young citizens who struggled to keep up with a rapidly changing economic context.

They lacked social supports, they lacked jobs, and they lacked hope.

It fits with what the latest research reveals about drug use and addiction – in situations of social deprivation, drug use prevails.

Estonia offers a glimpse into what the future may hold for a generation of North American youth, struggling with similarly rapid change and shrinking social supports.

But it doesn’t have to go that way.

Harm reduction is a proven method for reducing overdose fatalities, and creating rich social supports will help everyone in the community – users and non-users alike.

Portugal is another European country that offers insight into responding to an opioid crisis.

Rather than cracking down, as many governments do, Portugal decriminalized drug use.

14 years later, they have the second-lowest overdose rate in the European Union.

Despite the fact that their economy is struggling, their investment in healthcare and reducing stigma around drug use has proven effective.

Is the same progress possible with fentanyl?

Canada is already looking into opening safe injection sites, which are a step in the direction that brought success to Portugal.

In the meantime, law enforcement officers will continue to try and stem the flow of fentanyl from illegal labs onto the streets, and to help affected users.

The next article in this two-part series will look at how agencies and officers in Canada are approaching the problem, and working to keep citizens, their own colleagues and their canine partners safe.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a published academic, an editor with the Editors Association of Canada, an independent scholar and researcher, and a self-care and narrative coach. She is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and identity - how our tools shape our selves and change our stories, and in how the nature of work is changing as we incorporate more technology into our daily lives.

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