Tox Tuesday: Fentanyl

dreamstime_xs_19621261For those who take fentanyl, the effects are almost the same as heroin.

This synthetic opiate is about 80 times stronger than morphine (certain types used as large animal tranquilizers are about 10,000 times the strength of morphine). Fentanyl was created in Belgium in the 1950s and was put into medical use as an anesthetic in the 1960s. Today, fentanyl still is used as an anesthetic and analgesic to manage severe pain or pain after surgery. However, the first noted instances of illicit use began in the 1970s in the medical community. It most commonly is injected, although it can be smoked,according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  Fentanyl patches, which are applied like an adhesive bandage and release measured doses over time, also are abused when people remove the drug from the patch and inject or eat it.

Much like heroin, fentanyl works by binding to the brain’s opiate receptors, which can cause dopamine levels to spike, leaving the person with a feeling of euphoria. The drug often is mixed with other substances, including heroin and cocaine, which can cause confusion, euphoria, nausea, drowsiness, respiratory depression and coma, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Fentanyl is listed as a Schedule II prescription drug in the U.S., meaning it has an accepted medical use; however, it also has a high potential for abuse and overuse may lead to physical and psychological dependence. Other Schedule II drugs include morphine, methamphetamine and methadone. The U.S. also has identified more than 12 fentanyl analogues that have been created “clandestinely”. Fentanyl often reaches the streets in one of two ways – either through illicit production or illegally acquiring legitimate medication.

Fentanyl (also called “china white”) is an issue in several areas of Europe, especially Estonia, which stands out as a special case, according to a Fentanyl in Europe European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) Trendspotter Study from 2012. Use is so widespread that more people die from fentanyl overdoses annually in Estonia than from road accidents, according to the BBC. The drug first became popular in Estonia about a decade ago following a heroin shortage (studies have noted upticks in fentanyl use in other areas when heroin is in short supply or more costly). Fast forward to 2011 and fentanyl represented the most common type of opioid use in people entering drug rehab treatment for the first time. Sadly, Estonia also has the highest mortality rate from drug overdoses in Europe – 136 per million people, a sharp spike from the average of 18 deaths per million, according to the European Drug Report 2013.

For more information on Neogen’s drug detection tests, click here.

Comments are closed.