“Fentanyl is here to stay; it’s not going anywhere. We can ignore it, or we can talk about it.”
-Kellie Ross, Opioid Treatment Program Director
Get the facts and share them widely; it could save someone’s life.
Fentanyl is a highly potent, synthetic opioid drug. It is often used as a pain medication in hospitals after surgery or for chronic pain, especially for cancer patients. But it is also an illicit opioid that is found on the streets, frequently mixed in with other substances. Fentanyl is powerful and lethal: it’s up to 50x stronger than heroin and 100x stronger than morphine.
That’s one reason why fentanyl is so dangerous: often, users don’t know they are taking it.
Fentanyl works in the brain the same way that other opioids do. When you ingest an opioid, it binds in your brain through opioid receptors. Once it binds to your receptors, the opioid will sit in your brain, causing a release of dopamine. The effect is relaxation and euphoria, explaining why it can be addictive. Fentanyl can be deadly; it carries risks beyond heroin and other opioids.
SouthLight Healthcare and Ship Community Outreach recently hosted a panel discussion on the prevalence of fentanyl and how it is impacting our community. Following are some reasons why fentanyl is so pervasive as well as how it is having an effect on our local community. Visit our Resources page for more information.
Many people are unaware that the substances they are using have fentanyl. Drug suppliers often mix fentanyl with other substances, such as cocaine or marijuana and do not tell the buyer. This means that people are using fentanyl without realizing it, which increases the risk of overdose.
If someone is using a substance that is mentally addictive but not physically addictive, it may be easier to stop using the substance. Adding fentanyl ensures that people will become addicted and return for more substances, keeping the supplier in business.
Turning powdered fentanyl into liquid form makes it easier to add to other substances as the liquid binds to them.
Carfentanil is one type that is used in veterinarian medicine for large animals, such as elephants or rhinoceroses. Carfentanil can be found in illicit substances, and it only takes 1-2 granules to cause an overdose. Different types of fentanyl and lack of product consistency may explain why some people overdose and others do not.
As a community, we need to understand that even if a person is intentionally using fentanyl, the user’s intention is usually to get as high as possible. It is not their intention to overdose.
If you cannot tell if someone is experiencing an overdose, then treat it as an overdose as you may be able to save their life. Administer Narcan and call 911. Watch this YouTube video from the manufacturer about how to use Narcan.
The first step to reducing drug overdose begins with reducing the stigma surrounding substance use. Approaching a person who is using substances with compassion and zero judgment is of the utmost importance, according to SouthLight’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Letitia Hazel.
“I see you. I see you’re struggling and that doesn’t have to define you.”—Dr. Letitia Hazel, SouthLight Chief Medical Officer
Here are three things we can do as a community to reduce the stigma of substance use and reduce overdose:
#1 – TALK about substance use and overdose. Educate our community leaders, schools and universities, parents, faith-based organizations, and social service agencies about substance use prevention and treatment.
#2 – EXPAND the distribution and use of Narcan. Educate our community about what Narcan is, how it works, and how to get it. Share overdose prevention education. You can contact North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition for Narcan supplies and training.
#3 – INCREASE access to substance use treatment. Provide resources on how to get help for substance use, especially for those who are uninsured or underinsured. Address the stigma that comes with addiction; it’s not a moral failing. It’s a biological addiction that requires medical treatment.
North Carolina is in the grip of a drug overdose epidemic, with fentanyl being the primary culprit. The new WRAL Documentary focusing on fentanyl’s impact, Crisis Next Door, debuted Wednesday, March 15, 2023.
WRAL’s Reporter Julian Grace interviewed SouthLight’s Chief Medical Officer, Letitia Hazel M.D. about how communities of color are seeing an increase in fatalities from drug overdose three to five times higher than they were in 2015. Julian also spoke with one of SouthLight’s Peer Support Specialists, Vernon Johnson.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with substance use, call (919) 787-6131 or contact SouthLight for an assessment. Our doors are open to all, with or without insurance; we don’t turn anyone away. SouthLight’s Opioid Treatment clinic in Southeast Raleigh offers both medication-assisted treatment and counseling to help treat substance use issues with heroin, fentanyl, and other opiates.
Grace Gilmore is a student at the UNC School of Social Work working toward her master’s degree. She formerly worked at SouthLight in the Intensive Outpatient Program as a counselor. Grace has returned to SouthLight to intern with the Community Engagement Team and shadow the clinical programs that SouthLight offers.