The synthetic painkiller Fentanyl has been showing up on the party circuit of both coasts in the US. The powerful drug has been implicated in the deaths of Prince, Mac Miller and Tom Petty, among others.
The opioid crisis just keeps getting worse, in part because new types of drugs keep finding their way onto the streets. Fentanyl, heroin’s synthetic cousin, is among the worst offenders.
Fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and many times that of heroin. Fentanyl was originally used as an anesthetic. Then doctors realized how effective it was at relieving pain in small quantities and started using it for that purpose.
The difference in strength between heroin and fentanyl arises from differences in their chemical structures. The chemicals in both bind to the mu-opioid receptor in the brain. But fentanyl gets there faster than morphine — the almost-instantaneous byproduct when the body breaks down heroin — because it more easily passes through the fat that is plentiful in the brain. Fentanyl also hugs the receptor so tightly that a tiny amount is enough to start the molecular chain of events that instigates opioids’ effects on the body.
This tighter affinity for the opioid receptor also means more naloxone — or Narcan — may be needed to combat a fentanyl overdose than a heroin overdose.
“In a fentanyl overdose, you may not be able to totally revive the person with the Narcan dose you have,” said Scott Lukas, director of the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. “Naloxone easily knocks morphine off of the receptor, but does that less so to fentanyl.”
Fentanyl and opioids have been blamed for the record number of overdose deaths in the United States last year— more than 93,000.
Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
Comedian Kate Quigley talks about her recovery from ingesting fentanyl-laced cocaine
Kate Quigley wrote: “I feel overwhelmed by the outpouring of kind messages and am incredibly grateful to be surrounded by a strong community of friends, family, colleagues, and fans who have offered their support during this time; and to the team of paramedics, nurses, and doctors who saved my life,” she wrote. “I am still shocked & devastated by the loss of my friends Fu, Rico, and Natalie. Words cannot describe the pain I am feeling & I will be changed forever by their passings.”
(Fu) Fuquan Johnson, a writer for the TV series Comedy Parlour Live, died along with Rico and Natalie after apparently overdosing on fentanyl-laced cocaine at a Venice, Calif. party on Friday.
Dependence and Addiction
Both fentanyl and heroin are considered to be extremely addictive drugs. They can produce an intense and euphoric “high,” and dependence can form quickly. Once the brain becomes used to the presence of an opioid drug, the body will require the drug in order to function optimally. Significant withdrawal symptoms can occur when the drug wears off. These effects include depression, anxiety, irritability, agitation, insomnia, and physical symptoms similar to those experienced with the flu. It may seem better to just keep taking the drug than deal with these painful withdrawal symptoms, and this can quickly lead to an inability to control how much and how often the drug is taken. Compulsive drug use caused by altered brain chemistry as the result of regular drug abuse is the definition of addiction.