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Fentanyl: UK’s Next Drug Epidemic?

When it comes to illicit drug use, heroin and crack cocaine are often considered the worst drugs someone can take. They are responsible for the majority of drug-related deaths and are the leading cause of concern in most countries. Now with synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, becoming more widespread, it seems that there’s a new epidemic coming. And soon, it is expected to hit the UK as well.

Fentanyl has been around since 1959, but it first made headlines in 2016, when it killed Prince, an iconic American musician. He died from an accidental overdose on the drug. 

Prince was prescribed the drug by a doctor, although the legitimacy of the prescription is under question. However, since then, fentanyl has become more common on the illicit drug market. It’s a major problem in the US and is now spreading globally. It is being sold as itself, under the guise of heroin, or laced into other drugs.

In the last few years, fentanyl-related deaths have increased dramatically. In the US, the rate seems to double each year. Other countries have noticed alarming statistics as well and in 2017, England and Wales reported a rise of 30% in deaths due to fentanyl. 

Since then, the death toll only continues to grow. With the drug rapidly seeping into the illicit drug market, it looks like the UK may have a serious problem ahead.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a highly addictive synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times stronger than morphine. Its effects are similar to heroin but much stronger. However, it’s an extremely easy drug to overdose on. As little as 2mg of fentanyl is enough to kill a person. 

Fentanyl is occasionally prescribed to people in severe pain due to cancer, surgery, or injury, often because they are immune to other opioids. It is also sometimes used during anaesthesia. 

Today, fentanyl is largely illicitly manufactured and heavily present on the street drug market. It can be found in many forms, from pills to liquid to white, green, or brown powder. It has also been sold as skin patches, nasal spray, blotter paper, and candy. It is nearly impossible, without proper test equipment, to tell if a drug has been adulterated with fentanyl.

Since it’s cheaper to make, fentanyl is often mixed in with heroin or other opioid drugs to increase their strength while lowering the cost. It is sometimes used to make counterfeit heroin or painkiller pills. It can also be used as an adulterant to amplify the effects of unrelated drugs such as cocaine.

Risks of Fentanyl Use

Fentanyl is essentially a more potent form of morphine and heroin, so its side effects are similar. They include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Respiratory depression
  • Loss of consciousness or coma
  • Dangerously low heart rate

Another problem is that the majority of people are not aware they are taking fentanyl, which is the main reason the drug is so dangerous. If people don’t know what they’re taking or how much, they can easily overdose, even from one episode of recreational use.

In addition to these, the biggest risks of all seem to be developing an addiction. Recent data from the US shows how dangerously addictive the drug can be. 

The Rise in Fentanyl Addiction

Fentanyl is well-known in the US, and there is a strong demand for the drug among regular consumers. Heroin, prescription painkillers, and other opioid drugs have been a leading cause of chaos in the United States. The US is known for having the highest number of opioid-related deaths of any country in the world. 

In a recent study by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it was shown that there is a staggering amount of opioid users that prefer fentanyl over heroin or other opioids. That preference seems to be higher among younger adults – those under 40 years of age – and those of caucasian race. 

Drug users with a fentanyl preference are also more likely to indulge in daily drug use – 92% admit to doing so. They also have more overdoses (and more frequently) than those who do not prefer fentanyl. Despite said overdoses, the participants did not show any fear of the drug, proving the potential addictiveness of the substance.

If fentanyl spreads to UK streets, it can quickly rise to epidemic levels. When it was first introduced to the market in the US, it caused a lot of damage in a very short period of time. From 2013 to 2016, there was a six-fold increase in deaths from synthetic opioids. And to this day, that rate continues to climb.

Is Fentanyl Going to be a Problem to the UK

Although fentanyl hasn’t been as widespread on British drug markets before, it is becoming an issue now. This is evident from rising numbers in fentanyl-related deaths since 2016.  

The news is worrying, considering that opioid addiction is a serious problem in many parts of the UK. Given the evidence of fentanyl’s addiction potential, should this drug hit the black market in high numbers, it can cause a lot of damage in a very short period.

The issue has already been spotted in various parts of the UK, and more so in North East England. Much of the rise in opioid-related deaths in that area is suspected to be because of fentanyl. Because fentanyl isn’t normally screened for post-mortem examinations, those numbers could be even higher.

In addition, it was noted that a significant number of people in treatment for opioid addiction tested positive for fentanyl. The majority, about 80% of the patients, was not aware they had been exposed to it.

What makes things worse is that the year 2017 was also the first time that carfentanyl was listed in the UK’s drug-related death statistics. Carfentanyl is an even more potent synthetic opioid about 10,000 times stronger than morphine. It is normally used as an elephant tranquilliser. 

Addressing the Incoming Epidemic

There are already a number of measures taken in the UK to reduce opioid-related deaths. For example, users can utilise needle-exchange services, acquire Naloxone (an emergency medication for overdoses), or sign up for opioid substitution therapy (e.g. methadone).

However, these may not help very well when it comes to dealing with fentanyl. Naloxone is unfortunately less reliable when it comes to synthetic opioids. Given that overdoses are the number one issue with fentanyl, this is worrying. And noting how addictive fentanyl is, as shown in the US study, users are unlikely to voluntarily switch to a weaker drug such as methadone.

Instead, it is best to prevent the problem in the first place. Aside from protecting the UK from fentanyl, it is necessary to address substance abuse in people who are most likely to be exposed to fentanyl. This is especially important for anyone currently abusing opioid drugs.

Detox for Fentanyl and Opioid Addiction at Castle Craig

Having treated patients from all walks of life for over 30 years, Castle Craig can help you or someone you love. We offer treatments for all sorts of addictions, including those for fentanyl and other opioid drugs.

Knowing how serious a fentanyl or opioid addiction can be, we aim to provide the best possible care. Psychiatrist-led detox is crucial when dealing with drug addiction, and in some cases, as with opioids, it can be dangerous if done wrong. Detoxification from opioids can be very unpleasant and even life-threatening.

At Castle Craig, our opioid detox programme includes 24/7 medical supervision, which is needed when dealing with such a serious drug. If necessary, we help our patients slowly taper their use with substitution therapy.

Fentanyl Rehab Therapy

Of course, treating opioid addiction goes beyond detoxification. It is necessary to address the problem via therapy as well. Castle Craig offers a variety of therapeutic techniques, majorly based on CBT, DBT, and the 12-steps. Aftercare is also part of our treatment plan, to assure a long-lasting recovery.

Don’t hesitate to contact us about our addiction treatment programmes. We can offer helpful advice for you if you’re dealing with opioid addiction or if you’re worried about someone else’s substance abuse. Our offices can be reached at 0808 252 5615 or via email at [email protected]