The influx of the powerful painkiller fentanyl into Virginia is driving a steady increase in the state’s heroin death rate, and addicts are purposefully seeking the fatal substance for a better high.
Fentanyl is a painkiller 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and is a primary driver of the U.S. heroin epidemic and the disturbing increase in overdoses. The heroin overdose death rate in the state jumped 39 percent between 2014 and 2015 claiming 353 lives. The death rate from synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, climbed 57 percent over the same period. Officials fear abuse is accelerating, noting 400 people died in fentanyl related incidents over the first nine months of 2016, reports The Washington Post.
Dealers are allegedly competing with each other to sell the most potent product possible. Addicts are largely seeking a powerful high, and hearing about a deadly batch will actually attract addicts to that dealer.
“What we hear from users is that quality is important, and that the reputation of a dealer is rated on a scale of one to 10,” Marc Birnbaum, assistant attorney general for Virginia, told The Washington Post. “We’ve talked to users whose dealers will say, ‘I got the stuff that will keep you from getting sick, and I got the stuff that will kill you.’ It’s a tragic situation because, for the most part, they want the most potent dose.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring hosted an event Monday at a local high school to raise awareness about the prevalence of heroin in their communities. Herring said the opioid epidemic is “not a white problem, black problem, Asian, Latino, really this is something that can happen to anyone.”
Addiction experts blame much of the explosion of heroin use since 2010 on the over-prescribing of pain medications for more than a decade. Officials with the DEA say four out of five heroin addicts started with painkillers.
A record 33,000 Americans died from opioid related overdoses in 2015, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid deaths contributed to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993 and eclipsed deaths from motor vehicle accidents in 2015.
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