Unless you’ve been living on a desert island for the last decade, you’ve probably heard plenty of buzz about the rise of fentanyl use in the United States. But why is it such a big deal – and why does it matter now? This isn’t just one more street drug for the news headlines to complain about; it’s having a serious effect on opioid users, both in Illinois and elsewhere.

A little background on opioids in the US

Opioids have been around for quite a while, but it’s possible to outline three different waves of the opioid epidemic.

  • The first wave began in the ‘90s; this is when doctors started prescribing opioids much more liberally than before. Opioid-related deaths started to increase at the end of the decade.
  • 2010 marked the beginning of the second wave, mainly thanks to a spike in heroin use – resulting in even more overdoses and deaths.
  • We didn’t have to wait long for the third wave, which started in 2013. This year marked the arrival of massive amounts of fentanyl into the US, which hadn’t previously been as popular among opioid users. These days it’s pretty much everywhere, mixed into counterfeit pills or cut into cocaine and other drugs.

The opioid epidemic seemed to grow with no signs of stopping until 2018 when concerns over the epidemic seemed to play a role in the nearly 7% reduction in prescription opioid-related deaths. By the beginning of 2020, though, people weren’t just dealing with an epidemic, but also a pandemic: COVID-19 hit in March of that year, and the reduced death rates of 2018 and 2019 became a thing of the past.

The impact of COVID-19 on opioid use

As if the losses from the actual pandemic weren’t enough to deal with, COVID-19 also contributed to a nearly 30% increase in drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in April 2021. Estimates placed the toll at just over 100,000 deaths, with over 75% of them coming from opioids like fentanyl and heroin. For comparison, about 56,000 people died of opioid-related overdoses in the 12-month period ending in April 2020. If you’re just looking at fatal opioid overdoses, that’s a 35% increase in a single year.

What drove this change, though? According to a survey taken by over 5,400 individuals a few months after the start of the pandemic, 13% of them had either begun using opioids or had ramped up the amount they were already taking because of emotional upheaval and/or stress.

The role of fentanyl in the last decade

Opioids like cocaine and heroin are already strong, but fentanyl is even stronger – in fact, it’s up to 100 times more potent than morphine (used to manufacture heroin). It started out in 1959 as a prescription pain medication, but it’s grown way past its original purpose thanks to a surge in popularity among illegal drug dealers and users. It’s cheap, it’s strong, and it’s often easier to get than other opioids.

Unfortunately, fentanyl’s potency has probably contributed to a lot of accidental deaths. In 2015, New York City reported 17 overdose deaths from fentanyl and cocaine. Four years later, that number had risen to 183. By 2021, the DEA had to issue a warning that over 40% of illicit prescription drugs had lethal quantities of fentanyl.

What has led to such a sharp rise in fentanyl use, though? For one thing, big pharma was forced to tighten up their policies on opioid prescriptions after losing a lawsuit over their part in the nationwide opioid epidemic. Then COVID hit, shutting down international borders and delaying shipments from all over the world (legal and otherwise). With the usual sources disrupted at so many points, illegal fentanyl seemed like a great way to fill the gap – and so it did. Even China’s 2019 ban on fentanyl didn’t do much; vendors could still make analogs and precursor ingredients, mainly in Mexico.

The opioid epidemic in Illinois

All 50 states have been affected by the opioid epidemic, and Illinois is no exception. The state’s 2020 statistics show that there were 2,944 fatalities from opioid overdoses; that number is 230% more than fatal vehicular accidents, and 220% more than the state’s homicide rate. It’s also a 32.7% increase over the 2019 numbers, which is a big step in the wrong direction.

As is the case with the rest of the US, fentanyl plays a huge role in Illinois’ opioid troubles. In 2020, it was implicated in 84% of all opioid-related deaths, and in 70% of total drug fatalities. Whether you’re looking at rural or urban communities, Black or white neighborhoods, or wealthy or poor parts of the state – every part has been affected.

What’s the answer to the growing problem?

For someone who struggles personally with opioid addiction, the answer could take the form of inpatient rehab, hopefully along with the support of family and friends. Since withdrawing from opioid addiction can actually be dangerous (as well as very painful), detoxing under medical supervision will probably bring the best outcome. After that, counseling or therapy has been shown to help reduce relapses, along with medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

What about the people who aren’t addicted to opioids, but still want to stay involved somehow? Awareness is key. To dig deeper into both the problems and the solutions of the opioid epidemic, here are some helpful resources:

Opioid Abuse Resources

Just like there isn’t one clear cause of the opioid epidemic, there’s no single cut-and-dried answer. However, we’ve seen in the past that access to information and practical resources can help both individuals and communities in the struggle against opioid addiction. Getting the numbers moving in the right direction is a tough job, but given the ongoing toll of opioids throughout the United States and beyond, it’s something that’s definitely worth doing.