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Overdose deaths skyrocket; fentanyl is to blame

Southern Oregon is not immune to the increase in drug overdose deaths sweeping the country, and the culprit is clear: the extremely cheap and powerful painkiller fentanyl.

The Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office reports drug overdoses killed 91 people in 2021. That’s more than double the 41 deaths recorded in 2020. In 2019, only 16 people died from overdoses.

Overdoses killed more people in Jackson County last year than suicides, car crashes or homicides.

The insidious nature of fentanyl makes it difficult to combat and deaths from its effects hard to prevent.

Fentanyl has been around as a prescription painkiller since 1959, when it was developed. Unlike some other opioids, it is a synthetic drug manufactured in laboratories. It is used to relieve severe pain from cancer or surgery, or to treat patients with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, as little as 2 milligrams can be fatal, depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage. The DEA says 42% of illicit pills tested contained at least 2 milligrams of fentanyl.

While fentanyl is sold on the street to users who want it specifically, it is also mixed with other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and meth. Fentanyl also is being pressed into pills made to look like legitimate prescription opioids. Users may not even know they are ingesting fentanyl, which makes it even more dangerous.

Because it is so potent, fentanyl acts much more quickly to suppress breathing than other opioids. Naloxone, a nasal spray carried by police and paramedics and available to the public, must be administered much faster in the case of a fentanyl overdose, and multiple doses may be needed.

The message from all of this is clear: Do not take street drugs, because chances are good that they have been laced with fentanyl.

If you know someone who is a drug user, especially if they are addicted to opioids, obtain a supply of naloxone, and learn to administer it. Max’s Mission, a local nonprofit organization, provides free naloxone kits and training in how to use them. Test strips to detect the presence of fentanyl are also available. Visit the group’s website, www.maxsmission.org, to view a training video and order naloxone by mail. The site also lists regular outreach events, and a list of public emergency kit dispensers situated throughout Jackson and Josephine counties.