The Unspoken Pandemic

There is a pandemic happening in America right now, and it killed over 100,000 Americans last year alone.

This pandemic is out of control, it strikes relentlessly and indiscriminately; its victims can be young, fit and healthy or old and frail, there is no pattern to who it strikes. Worryingly, there is no vaccine and no lockdown measures, mask mandates or travel restrictions that can or will halt its progress.

This pandemic is of plague proportions and affecting households of all backgrounds and ethnicities across many states of the U.S.A.

The real pandemic in America is fentanyl, not COVID-19.

Fentanyl is an opioid drug, often euphemised as a prescription pain killer.

Yes, the same prescription pain killer that caused the death of Prince and Tom Petty, along with numerous famous musicians, rappers, actors, child stars and book authors, not to mention Michael Jackson who died from a cocktail of prescribed pain meds that probably also contained fentanyl.

This is the same prescription pain killer that causes the death of some teenage kid who couldn’t sleep and was told that it was a sleeping tablet, some young woman at a nightclub who was looking to score a party drug, or some middle-aged family man with chronic backpain who thought taking two tablets would work better than one. Fentanyl does not pick and choose its victims, and neither is it selective to only the rich and famous.

Fentanyl is fifty times stronger than pure heroin and 100 times more concentrated than morphine, and this drug killed over 100,000 Americans last year, even when taken as prescribed by a medical doctor. This fact is according to the CDC’s* own website.

Readily available and easily accessible on social media, fentanyl kills more people every year than any other drug, legal or illegal.

Fentanyl is the most dangerous drug prescribed by licensed doctors and doled out by drug dealers on the streets of America.

A lethal dose of fentanyl is just 2 milligrams (the weight of a mosquito).

The street value of fentanyl is so lucrative that it is now swarming into the US across the southern border from Mexico and South America; previous to that China was the main source of supply.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has no taste or smell. Doctors use it for cancer patients and claim it’s a last resort drug. Yet, despite it being 50 to 100 times more concentrated than morphine, it is being prescribed as a generic pain medication for anything from tonsillitis to backpain, with refills given without so much as a follow up visit.

Most people who buy drugs on the street are getting fentanyl and don’t even know it, leading to overdoses and the deaths of unsuspecting punters who were seeking a high. Often street fentanyl has been cut and mixed with other drugs such as cocaine or heroin to enhance the fix, the dependency and the depth of withdrawal so that you seek more to combat the addiction.

Doctors get fancy dinner bonuses and big money enticements for speeches at medical and health conventions about how great fentanyl is for pain. Some doctors are said to have received over $10,000 just to promote and push fentanyl on their patients and millions of dollars are handed out to doctors to prescribe it.

Research found that fentanyl prescriptions increased more than fivefold in Australia over the five years to 2011 and were linked to a rise in overdose deaths among middle aged Australians.

The number of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids in 2020 was 13 times higher than in 2013. Clearly, we've entered a new phase of the opioid crisis where people who have no intention or knowledge they are using opioids, are making up the statistics – as, after all, it’s a prescription painkiller and oh so innocent.

Whether it's the death of a regular or one-time drug user, these are preventable losses of precious life. Since 2000, more than a million people in the United States have died of drug overdoses, the majority of which were due to opioids and particularly fentanyl.

In the United States more than 1,500 people per week die from opioid-related overdoses. Meanwhile, millions more Americans suffer from opioid addiction.

The problem started with the over prescription of legal pain medications, but it has intensified in recent years with an influx of cheap heroin and synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, supplied by foreign-based drug cartels.

The crisis has reached such a scale in the US that it has become a drag on the economy: opioid misuse is costing America tens of billions of dollars annually, not only in healthcare expenses but also in the form of a weakened workforce.

Doctors began prescribing more opioids amid a growing concern that pain was going undertreated, and also because pharmaceutical companies began marketing the drugs more aggressively while claiming they posed little risk.

Opioid-related deaths increased in step with the volume of opioids prescribed. Many U.S. states have now passed legislation limiting opioid prescriptions but with the influx of fentanyl from Mexico, this has done little to abate the crisis.

As with other opioid drugs, fentanyl binds to the receptors in the brain that affect pain and emotions. This causes feelings of well-being (euphoria) and relaxation, and it also relieves pain. Over time, however, the brain adapts to fentanyl, making it hard for a person to experience positive emotions from anything but the drug. This can then lead to addiction.

People who use fentanyl swiftly develop a tolerance to high doses, meaning that more of the drug is needed to achieve the desired effect.

It would be easy to say that fentanyl addiction and overdose are so prevalent because there is a copious supply and easy access both licitly and illicitly, with a market which the drug can be sold to. But which came first, the prescription drug and its street counterpart or the demand from society to have something to numb the pain of not only their physical ailments but also the agony of life.

Are we societally demanding to be numb, to check out from the world, seeking a false high or altered state so as to escape our reality – be that a life that is unfulfilling, too stressful, too challenging or rallies against our sensitivity and innate ways of being?

Are we inadvertently placing pressure on our doctors and medical system by insisting that they have the answer and provide us with quick fixes to deal with our physical issues rather than being willing to step back and take a look at our lives and why the body is breaking down and in pain or why we have such mental unrest and disturbance that we need to seek distraction and escape?

It would be easy to discount or ignore the impact of fentanyl, to write off people who become reliant on pain medication as unfortunate or to label those who seek drugs to cope with life as degenerate, subhuman or criminal. But how is medicating with an opioid any different to medicating ourselves with alcohol, cigarettes, food, TV, gaming, emotional drama and other forms of distraction, withdrawal from life or entertainment?

You may say that there is no harm in watching a bit of TV or indulging in a certain food every now and again, and sure I would agree. However, where do we draw the line, when and where does it switch from being something we do to something we need, to something that becomes a crutch or emollient to get through life that we can’t possibly cope without?

What happens when your TV show of 30 minutes or an hour is no longer enough, when binge watching a series does not satiate your desire to be numb and dissociate from reality? What happens when your supersized all you can eat and whatever you want to eat, even delivered right to your door meal doesn’t make you feel full and take the edge off the emotions of life but still lets you feel the unrest and unpleasantness of a knowingness that deep within we know that the way we live is false and falls short of all that we are and innately can be?

What happens when the dose of your choice of medication no longer delivers the desired effect – do we seek higher and higher doses of the same medication, or do we go for harder ‘drugs’ and escalate what will provide our fix to deal with the demands and intensity of our lives?

It is common now to see people eating almost all day long at their desk at work, to be snacking on the run, grabbing a beer as soon as they clock off, or for those working from home to have a bottle of wine in the afternoon while still on the clock.

Playing video games for a few hours is no longer enough and players pull all-nighters or even all-weekers, never leaving their screen and even wearing adult diapers so they can have a continuous fix.

TV is on demand, 24/7 streaming, and we don’t even blink an eye when a friend or work colleague tells us they binge watched series after series of a show all weekend.

We now see these types of behaviour as normal and don’t even consider them extreme and this is the same for people living on prescription meds – it has become such commonplace that people are taking drugs to manage life that we don’t even question its validity as a therapy let alone why we are becoming so reliant, not just on over the counter medication but on the strongest and most potent opioid drug in the world.

The sheer number of people legally and illegally taking fentanyl surely must be seen as a cry for help if not an indication and indictment that we as a species are way off track.

No other drug has killed so many people, yet the reality of it hardly makes the news let alone the headlines – how easily we sweep such a massive litany of wreckage under the carpet. We ignore this crisis, this pandemic, at our own peril and to the detriment of all of humanity.

*Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Filed under

AddictionAnti-social behaviourDrugs

  • By Dr Rachel Hall, Dentist

    Dentist, business owner, writer, author and presenter. Family woman, guitarist, photographer, passionate about health, wellbeing and community. Lover of Vietnamese food, fast cars, social media, café culture and people.

  • Photography: Steve Matson, Electrical Engineer, Chef, Photographer, Forklift operator and student of life.

    I am someone that looks at something that is complicated and sees the simplicity behind it. Life needs to be fun and lived. Making mistakes is an important part of this process.