Adam Warner

5 FAQs About Synthetic Opioids, the Scourge Fueling Deadly Overdoses Across the Country

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What to Know

  • Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids nearly quadrupled
  • The increasing deadliness of street opioids has been partially blamed on much more potent synthetics like fentanyl
  • Carfentanil, an analog of fentanyl, is 10,000 times more potent than morphine

Tune in for "State of Addiction," a special week-long investigative series beginning on Monday, Dec. 11 on News 4 New York. 

Synthetic opioids have flooded the streets recently, feeding the opioid epidemic and leading to a surge in fatal overdoses. These synthetics, most notably fentanyl, are increasingly coming from street labs instead of doctors' offices. The CDC says they killed more than half of the 20,000 people who died from opioid overdoses in 2016.

Here are five of the most commonly asked questions about them.

What’s the difference between synthetic opioids and natural opiates like heroin?

Natural opiates are made from opium, the dried milk of the poppy plant, while synthetics and semi-synthetics are fully or partially manmade, according to Opium.org. Hydrocodone, oxycodone and heroin are semi-synthetic, while fentanyl, methadone and carfentanil are synthetic. There are even more, lesser known opioids in these three categories. The effects of synthetics tend to come on faster and last for a shorter period of time than natural opiates. 

Nina Lin/NBC

Why are synthetic opioids made?

They were initially developed by pharmaceutical companies to create fast-acting painkillers that lasted for a longer period of time. They were primarily geared towards patients with extreme pain, like people with terminal cancer. Fentanyl was discovered in the 1960s. It was originally used in surgery, but eventually expanded when an extended-release skin patch was developed in the 1990s, according to DrugPolicy.org. Soon fentanyl analogs like carfent­anil, furanylfentanyl, and acetylfentanyl were developed. Some were used medically, while others have not been approved for use in humans. These drugs are now being made illicitly in clandestine labs. 

How do synthetics make their way onto the streets?

After synthetics are made illicitly, they’re cut with heroin and other street drugs. It’s cheaper for drug producers to cut heroin with synthetics because of their potency. While this comes at an increased risk for the consumer, producers will be able to spend less and yield a stronger product. Because synthetics are more potent they're easier to conceal than traditional semi-synthetics like raw heroin.

Source: nyc.gov; Map: Will Mathis/NBC

How have synthetics contributed to increased overdoses?

The CDC has blamed illegally made fentanyl for the increasing number of deaths. The agency says statistics suggest a sharp rise in fentanyl-related deaths in recent years may be due to an increased availability of this illegally made, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl. The stuff is so potent that police and criminals alike have taken to wearing respirator masks, gloves and suits when handling it. 

Are synthetics more addictive than heroin or morphine?

More potent opioids like fentanyl tend to be more appealing to people who are already suffering from a serious addiction to heroin and other opioids. New users can quickly overdose on synthetics, bypassing the recreational aspects of the drug and heading quickly into a life-threatening state of intoxication. There have been reports that people seeking a euphoric high prefer to avoid fentanylfor fear of overdosing. While synthetics are more potent, their recreational qualities aren’t markedly different.

Source: CDC; Map: Will Mathis/NBC

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