As if the opioid crisis weren’t horrifying enough, a disturbing new trend has made using street drugs even more dangerous. Many people struggling with addiction now find that what they thought was heroin is actually a far stronger opioid — fentanyl or carfentanyl. The difference is often deadly.

Understanding the difference between the different opioids currently flooding the illicit market — and the serious risks involved in any of them — can go a long way toward preventing overdose.

Prescription Pain Killers: A Potential Gateway to Addiction

Beginning in the 1990s, restrictions on prescribing opioids such as Percocet and OxyContin were dramatically loosened. Many users found they could achieve a high by crushing the pills, then snorting or injecting them. This abuse led to a massive increase in the number of people who became addicted.

As a result, OxyContin and other medications were everywhere, and they eventually made their way onto the black market. Knowing the potential for heavy demand, drug cartels began increasing the availability of heroin, making it cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription pills. Today, it’s estimated that up to 80% of heroin addicts began by using and abusing prescription pain medications.

Fentanyl and Carfentanyl: Grave New Threats

Morphine has been around for centuries, and it is commonly used to treat severe pain. It’s derived from the poppy plant. Heroin was first introduced in 1874 as a more potent alternative to morphine. At twice the strength of morphine, it’s not only more powerful, but it also carries a greater risk of addiction.

The term “china white” is often used to describe extremely pure, powerful heroin, and it’s highly sought-after by addicts. Throughout the Toledo area, though, the substance being sold as china white is actually the synthetic opioid fentanyl with little or no heroin content. Why does that matter? Because fentanyl is over 50 times stronger than heroin, making the potential for overdose far higher.

As one user stated, “There’s so much fentanyl on the streets. It’s pretty much what people are dying from. When fentanyl hits the streets, there are bodies every day.”

In recent years, we have seen a tremendous rise in the prevalence of these synthetic opioids, which have made their way into communities across the country. While synthetic opioids are manufactured to be used in legitimate medical applications (fentanyl is manufactured to alleviate severe pain for people post-surgery), a massive black market has developed as people illegally sell or manufacture them.

In 2016, the DEA issued its first warnings about the rise of a synthetic opioid 10,000 times stronger than morphine — and 100 times stronger than fentanyl. Carfentanyl is manufactured as an anesthetic for elephants. One user has said, “I overdosed one time… it took six shots of Narcan to get back.” Just 2 mg of carfentanyl can be lethal; law enforcement officials are at risk just by handling the drug.

Unison Health: Leading the Fight Against Heroin and Opioids

Today, the danger of overdosing is greater than ever, mainly because it’s impossible to tell exactly what you’re using until it’s too late. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, Unison Health has an array of services designed to place people on the road to recovery. In addition to a sub-acute detox facility to help people through the crucial first few days, Unison Health offer medication-assisted treatment for heroin and opioid addiction.

Looking ahead, Unison Health recently began raising funds for Recovery Housing in conjunction with our treatments. Recovery Housing provides a safe place, free of alcohol and illegal drugs, with a network of peers to help one another through the difficult times. And studies show it works. Recovery Housing residents experience decreased substance use, decreased incarceration rates, increased family and social relationships, and improved social and emotional well-being.

We have received a pledge of nearly $500,000 in grant funding from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, as well as $83,000 from the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Lucas County. In order to receive these funds, though, we must raise $100,000 in matching funds by December 31, 2017.

If you would like to contribute to making Recovery Housing a reality for Unison Health, please contact us today. Together, we can fight back against heroin and opioid addiction in the Toledo area — and open even more doors to hope.

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