Fentanyl crisis casts long shadow over the US

By MINLU ZHANG in New York | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2023-10-06 09:32
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California Attorney-General Rob Bonta speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles in October last year on fentanyl enforcement action taken by the California Department of Justice. HANS GUTKNECHT/GETTY IMAGES

Deaths rocket from overdoses of drug up to 50 times stronger than heroin

Christopher Calvird, 29, who had always wanted to be a Christian pastor and start his own church, had ministered to people on the streets of San Francisco for the past five years.

But three weeks after his 29th birthday, Calvird, who had short brown hair and a dimpled face when he smiled, was found dead alone in a city park. When he realized that death was near, he dropped to his knees, dying in a posture of prayer.

An autopsy revealed that he died from fentanyl poisoning.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, and is a potent synthetic opioid drug like morphine, but 50 to 300 times stronger. Just the smallest amount can cause death.

Nearly 110,000 United States citizens died from drug overdoses and drug poisoning last year, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, show. That is about 300 people per day, more than twice as many as five years ago. Fentanyl is found in more than half of overdose deaths.

San Francisco health officials said deaths from overdoses of fentanyl in the city could set a record this year. In July alone, 71 people died from drug overdoses, and 80 percent of the overdose deaths this year have been caused by fentanyl, the officials said.

To date this year, 473 people have died from drug overdoses in San Francisco, with fentanyl responsible for 385 of these deaths. If the rate continues, the city will exceed last year's death total.

Last month, a billboard bearing a photograph of Calvird was erected next to a highway in California. Alongside his warm smile, written in large letters were the words "Fentanyl Kills". The billboard was put up by his heartbroken mother, Jennifer Burruel.

She told local television station KCRA, "The next time anyone laughs at somebody that's spaced out or on the streets, they have to remember there's a mother crying herself to sleep at night because that's their child out there."

Deaths related to fentanyl overdoses are rocketing in the US. In 2021, there were more than 70,000 overdose deaths from synthetic opioids alone, a toll surpassing the combined loss of US military personnel during the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the CDC said.

Created in Belgium in the 1960s, fentanyl was described by pain specialists as a "miracle drug". It works potently to alleviate extreme pain after surgery. Pharmaceutical fentanyl was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a pain reliever in 1998, and is typically prescribed to patients with severe or chronic pain.

However, it can also be deadly. Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl is a lethal dose, and doses as small as 0.25 mg place the user at a high risk. In comparison, a lethal dose of heroin is 100 mg, while 250 mg of cocaine is a lethal dose.

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