Imagine an illicit drug so powerful that a dose of just three salt-sized grains is fatal. A drug so dangerous that first responders answering a 911 call reporting an overdose should wear hazmat suits to protect themselves from exposure to it. A substance so deadly that drug-detection dogs aren’t allowed to sniff for it because it could kill them. This is not science fiction. This drug exists. It’s called fentanyl — the very painkiller that killed musical icon Prince and thousands of other Americans last year. If left unchecked, this Godzilla of opioids threatens to lay waste to communities across the country.
The evidence is that fentanyl is already on the rampage. Between 2013 and 2015, the United States saw an increase of more than 8,000 percent in the amount of synthetic opioids like fentanyl seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Worse, according to the Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory, from 2013 to 2015, the number of items seized by law enforcement that tested positive for fentanyl — either fentanyl alone or a heroin-fentanyl combination — increased by 10,000 percent. Last year, of the 1,319 opioid-related deaths in the Commonwealth for which a blood test was available, more than half — 754 — tested positive for fentanyl.
This deadly trajectory is why I recently convened a roundtable discussion on fentanyl at Massachusetts General Hospital, bringing together top government officials like Customs and Border Protection chief and former “Drug Czar” Gil Kerlikoswke, and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Special Agent in Charge for New England, Michael Ferguson, as well as key health and treatment leaders like Dr. Myechia Minter-Jordan, President and CEO of The Dimock Center in Roxbury and Dr. Sarah Wakeman of Massachusetts General Hospital.
From prevention to treatment to interdiction, illicit fentanyl presents myriad challenges. Fentanyl on the streets of Massachusetts often originates in China, and then is smuggled into the United States by Mexican drug cartels. We need to work with these countries to control the production and export of the drug. Because fentanyl is so powerful, shipments are small and difficult to detect. That is why we need to devote additional resources to interdiction and new detection technologies. Fentanyl’s potency means that treating an overdose victim with a single hit of the antidote naloxone, as called Narcan, is no longer sufficient, and multiple applications are often required. We need to ensure an adequate supply of Narcan, that is widely available and affordable, especially for our first responders. And when overdoses do occur, it is more important than ever to get patients suffering from dependency and addiction into treatment — at programs like The Dimock Center or through the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative based out of Gloucester. And once in treatment, we must ensure patients have access to a continuum of customized care, as Massachusetts General is doing.
Illicit fentanyl is difficult to detect and has deadly consequences for those who unknowingly come into its path. We cannot let another day pass by without taking the necessary steps to educate our communities about this deadly drug, develop a national strategy, and collaborate with our international partners. American lives depend on a solution to this latest opioid crisis.