Fentanyl deaths on the rise in Washington

A state investigation into fentanyl deaths revealed that they’re on the rise and that most overdoses involved illicit drug use.

Fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine – and other fentanyl-like drugs were involved in at least 70 deaths in the state in 2016, according to the joint investigation.

Fentanyl-involved deaths roughly doubled from 2015 to 2016, though direct comparisons aren’t possible because the state toxicology lab changed testing protocols in the middle of 2016 to identify smaller amounts and new types related drugs.

Using the old protocol in 2015, the lab identified 28 fentanyl-related deaths. The old protocol would have identified 53 fentanyl-related deaths in 2016. The new protocol identified an additional 17 deaths, according to the investigation.

“Our review showed that most overdoses involved fentanyl whose source is illicit or unknown,” said Caleb Banta-Green, a senior research scientist at the University of Washington, in a news release. “Fentanyl-related drugs are present in a substantial minority of cases, and pharmaceutical fentanyl in a small proportion of cases. The source and form of these non-pharmaceutical drugs is hard to determine, but appears to be often purchased on the street or online, and often in the form of a powder or pill that looks like a real pharmaceutical such as an opioid or a benzodiazepine.”

Illicitly produced fentanyl can be chemically indistinguishable from the pharmaceutical drug, according to the state health department. But it’s typically sold as a powder or a pill, which are not available by prescription.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is usually only available at hospitals and may be prescribed as a patch or a lollipop to treat severe pain.

Illicitly produced fentanyl may also have unpredictable levels of potency, health officials warn.

In the last several years, overdose deaths from prescription opioids have declined while heroin deaths have increased, according to health officials. Preliminary analysis of 2016 death data shows there were 680 opioid-related overdose deaths in Washington.

Marissa Harshman

Marissa Harshman

I'm the health reporter for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. I started at The Columbian -- my hometown newspaper -- in September 2009. Reach me at marissa.harshman@columbian.com or 360-735-4546.

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