Heroin and Fentanyl have been in the news quite a bit recently, especially given the recent rise in heroin-related overdose deaths tied to the integration of Fentanyl into the heroin markets across the country. Often those who suffer these unfortunate overdoses aren’t aware that they are taking this lethal concoction; where heroin alone is deadly, when Fentanyl is married into the mix, the result is proving to be catastrophic.
Part of the problem is that we understand so little about Fentanyl and how it interacts with heroin. That’s why it’s the focus of today’s “What’s the Difference?”
Fentanyl and Heroin: History Repeating Itself
Here’s your trivia for today: heroin started its career of death-dealing as an over-the-counter pain medication. Invented in Germany in 1857, heroin was deemed a medical breakthrough of the time. The medical industry of the time ironically touted it as a safe alternative to another highly addictive opioid pain killer: Morphine.
Over the next few decades, doctors and pharmacists quickly learned that heroin posed the same dangers as Morphine on a much greater scale. After
Fentanyl, yet another powerful opioid painkiller, is following a similar path. 50 to 100 times stronger than Morphine, Fentanyl is so powerful that it’s intended use was only for treatment of people experiencing extreme pain caused by late-stage cancer or during surgery. Another bit of trivia? Fentanyl is often used in conjunction with the controversial drug Midazolam during executions via lethal injection. While the medical applications of Fentanyl are limited and under severe restrictions, that hasn’t stopped the incredibly dangerous substance from finding a place on the illegal street market.
There’s nothing new about pain medications in the street market. “Popping pills” is especially popular among young teens who naively believe their attempts to get high are safe because these drugs are labelled as medication. Unfortunately taking medication which is not prescribed to you can have serious, even lethal effects, including brain damage, organ failure, and death. There’s nothing cool, fun, or glamorous about overdoses, and unfortunately Fentanyl seems to be making the rate of heroin overdoses skyrocket.
What’s the Difference Between Heroin and Fentanyl?
While both of these drugs are opioids, meaning their effects on the mind and body are quite similar: both produce a relaxed, nearly euphoric feeling, and they pose the same risks of death. When a drug like Fentanyl or Heroin is used, the respiratory system, central nervous system, and cardiovascular system are suppressed, which can lead to reduced consciousness or unconsciousness, difficulty breathing, heart problems, and other dangerous medical conditions.
So what’s the difference? Heroin, for one, is a derivative of Morphine, which naturally occurs within opium poppy plants, while Fentanyl is man-made and (as noted before) up to 100 times more powerful than Morphine. As a synthetic opiate with at least some medical use, Fentanyl remains a Schedule II drug in comparison to heroin’s place as a Schedule I drug. Additionally, where heroin is often injected, snorted, or smoked, Fentanyl, when used as an illicit substance, is typically taken in pill form.
The most common marriage of these two substances comes during a process called “cutting,” which is when illegal drug manufacturers dilute one substance with another. In the case of heroin and Fentanyl, cutting heroin with Fentanyl makes the effects much stronger and the substance more potent. Typically, however, people who use this doctored heroin supply are unaware that they are also taking another powerful substance, leading them to unintentionally overdose. Fentanyl is often used for management of pain in people who have developed a tolerance for other opiate medications, meaning their pain has surpassed the threshold for effectiveness of other drugs. In people who do not have such a tolerance, Fentanyl use and abuse is life-threatening.
Legal and Medical Consequences of Fentanyl Abuse
With the resurgence of heroin overdose deaths and the tie to Fentanyl, many people are pushing for greater control over the pain medication and opioid drugs in general. Though this may seem like the obvious solution to a rapidly growing problem, there is one population that stands to lose in such a case: people with pain management problems who depend on these medications to experience a better quality of life. This includes people with chronic pain disorders, cancer patients, and people recovering from life-saving, invasive surgeries.
As it becomes increasingly difficult to gain access to Fentanyl even for legitimate medical applications, doctors and patients are scrambling for some way to find relief. Lobbyists and organizations representing such patients are pushing for fear not to outshadow their needs.