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Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid approved by the FDA for pain relief and regarded as 100 times stronger than morphine. However, it has gained traction as an illicit drug and has sharply risen in its prevalence across the country. According to the DEA, fentanyl-related overdose deaths tallied 2,666 in 2011. That number dramatically increased to 31,335 in 2018.
In Pinal County, there has also been a sharp rise in the drug's prevalence. When looking at fentanyl as a percentage of drug-related charges filed by PCAO, the increase is alarming:
2019: <2% 2020: 11% 2021: >22%
"I don't know where the end is," said County Attorney Kent Volkmer. "The issue is we have an addiction based society. As long as it is cheap, as long as it gives an incredible high, I don't know where the end is."
"Pinal County is witnessing, overall, about one overdose every single day...that's tragic"
What makes fentanyl so dangerous is its level of toxicity. It takes a very small amount to lead to an overdose. Oftentimes, those using fentanyl either don't know it is laced in the product they are using, or the illegally produced fentanyl pill contains significantly more of the drug than the user thinks.
"You could buy ten from a particular dealer, you could take the first seven, take one and be perfectly fine," County Attorney Volkmer said. "That eighth pill could have a little bit of additional fentanyl in there, and that would be the amount that you would overdose on. That's part of the danger is you don't know what you're getting."
It is incredible important to talk with kids about the dangers of fentanyl. Pills can be passed around by students at parties or other social gatherings.
"They go to a party and somebody says, 'hey, this will get you high, it's easy, you don't have to get injected, you don't have to have any of that stigma, you can pop a pill and you're just going to chill," Volkmer said. "What happens is it is the unregulated, black market fentanyl, and we're seeing young men and women die."
"What was I thinking? I really must have had a death wish. Deep down I must have really wanted to die because I can't explain it any other way. It's that deadly"
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a national hotline for treatment referral and information. That number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
The Arizona Department of Health Services has a list of community resources for opioid addiction treatment both in Arizona and nationally.