Efforts to combat rising fentanyl overdose rates have largely targeted people who use heroin and other opioids, but data shows cocaine users are increasingly at risk.
Deaths related to the synthetic opiate fentanyl are on the rise in Connecticut — but not just among heroin users, where it’s most commonly found — according to new data from the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Between 2012 and 2017, overdose deaths involving the presence of heroin and fentanyl spiked from just one death in 2012 to 333 in 2017. That rise is mirrored around the country, as more drug dealers cut their product with this deadly, easy-to-make and easy-to-transport alternative. While the epidemic of heroin mixed with fentanyl has received lots of media and political attention, the troubling rise of fentanyl deaths in cocaine users is going unnoticed.
In 2012, there were just just two deaths reported in Connecticut involving the combination of fentanyl and cocaine. In 2013, that number had increased to 16. By 2016 it was 143. Last year, it skyrocketed to 220 deaths total in 2017 alone — a rapid and alarming increase that has received almost no press coverage or political attention.
Since the fentanyl epidemic began, public education campaign have aimed to educate residents about the growing risks of fentanyl-laced heroin. Connecticut, responding to record-breaking overdose numbers, just launched its new “Change the Script” campaign to “provide communities, healthcare providers, pharmacists, and individuals with information on the prescription drug and opioid misuse and overdose crisis that is plaguing states throughout the nation.”
The campaign includes flyers, brochures, and videos designed to discourage drug use and promote residents to carry the anti-overdose medication Naloxone, better known as Narcan.
As well-intentioned as the campaign is, it’s also narrowly focused on the risks of opiates and fentanyl. The brochures directly tie the rise of opioid deaths to fentanyl, and while that’s accurate, it also misses the the subset of the population that may be using and abusing other drugs such as cocaine without even realizing that they are also at risk.
In December, the Drug Enforcement Agency issued a warning to Florida residents that they had collected 180 samples of fentanyl-laced cocaine in more than 20 counties last year. Officials suspect that’s what is driving Florida’s rapidly increasing rate of cocaine-related overdose deaths. Cocaine overdoses have more than doubled since 2014, and cocaine actually exceeds heroin in drug-related deaths in the state, according to the latest report from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
That DEA warning, however, was exclusive to Florida. While Floridians may start to get the message that the risks of accidentally consuming fentanyl are wider than previously realized, the residents of states like Connecticut remain in the dark.
The lack of awareness around this issue also undercuts the message pro-Narcan message in some of Connecticut’s Change the Script materials. Residents carrying Narcan may be able to do something about the hundreds of heroin and fentanyl deaths the state is facing per year.
However, Narcan does not treat overdoses related to non-opiates like cocaine. So citizens responsibly trained to carry Narcan might be unaware that someone suffering from what appears to be a cocaine overdose could actually be suffering from a fentanyl overdose that is treatable with Narcan.
Make no mistake: Connecticut’s Change the Script campaign and its accompanying legislation aimed at fighting opioid overdoses in the state legislature are steps in the right direction. However, fentanyl is more than just an opioid problem and dealing with it will require legislators and residents to recognize that reality.
As it stands this fast-spreading, deadly drug is one-step ahead of public efforts to combat it.