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Fentanyl: a new scourge

The crisis of opioid addiction has captured the attention of the public, lawmakers and the medical community. But while progress is being made against over-prescribing opioid painkillers, street drugs laced with fentanyl are becoming more common and more deadly.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid much more powerful than heroin and far cheaper, leading drug traffickers to add it to street heroin to increase profits. Users can’t tell that heroin they buy has been adulterated with fentanyl, and the drug is so powerful that a tiny amount is deadly. Even more alarming, fentanyl has been turning up in non-opioid street drugs, including methamphetamine and cocaine.

In 2011, fentanyl was involved in 4 percent of overdose deaths. Five years later, the figure was 29 percent.

Why drug traffickers would lace heroin with fentanyl is fairly easy to figure out. It’s far cheaper than heroin, and has a similar depressant effect. Why cocaine? Drug experts suggest it may be simple carelessness: traffickers cutting heroin using the same surfaces and equipment to process cocaine without cleaning them first.

The local nonprofit group Max’s Mission, which distributes free naloxone, is also offering test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl in other drugs. The group will give away test strips and naloxone kits and provide instruction in using them from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Medford library.

It’s not a perfect solution — getting users to kick the habit is the long-term goal. But addiction treatment can’t help a drug user who dies of an overdose.