Deaths Related to Fentanyl Are Skyrocketing

Different pills.

If you’ve heard of fentanyl , odds are you know something about just how dangerous and risky this drug is. By itself, the opioid drug fentanyl causes thousands upon thousands of overdose deaths every year. And it happens even when someone is using the substance exactly as prescribed. Anyone can become addicted to fentanyl, and anyone can die from it.

According to research charts from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 28,400 people died from fentanyl overdoses in 2017. Fentanyl is only one drug, yet it caused 39 percent of all 70,200 drug overdoses in 2017. And it’s a relatively new overdose crisis too, which makes the risks and death potential attendant with the substance just that much more concerning.

This isn’t to say that fentanyl itself is new. Fentanyl has been around for decades. But because fentanyl’s overdose spike is relatively new, it’s difficult to predict future drug trends with fentanyl. If we examine NIDA’s charts, we can see that fentanyl claimed a few thousand lives every year up until its spike in overdose deaths in 2015. Since then, overdose deaths have skyrocketed.

But even more concerning than fentanyl by itself is when fentanyl is consumed in tandem with other drugs. Such drug use is called “poly-drug use,” (i.e., using more than one substance at once.) It is a trend, and it is taking off in the United States.

New Research Sheds Light on Lethal Drug Problems

A research paper published in JAMA Network Open on April 26, 2019, shows some startling discoveries on poly-drug use. The research focuses not only on the danger and lethality in fentanyl use, but it also indicates that more addicts are using fentanyl in tandem with other drugs like cocaine and meth.

The research zeroes in on urine-based drug tests which tested positive for cocaine and meth. The researchers studied cross-sectional data of no less than 1 million drug test results from January 2013 through September 2018. The following was found:

  • From 2013 to 2018, in a sampling of 1 million patients’ urine drug tests, it was found that positivity rates for non-prescribed fentanyl among cocaine-positive test results increased substantially. The research indicated that, in 2013, 0.9 percent of cocaine-positive drug tests also included traces of fentanyl. But by 2018, that percentage had risen to 17.6 percent of cocaine-positive drug tests which also included traces of fentanyl. That’s a 1,850 percent increase.
  • For methamphetamine, the statistics are also quite concerning for 2013 to 2018. Again in a sampling of 1 million drug tests which showed positive for meth in 2013, researchers found that 0.9 percent (coincidentally the same figure for 2013’s cocaine-positive tests) of such drug tests also tested positive for fentanyl. In 2018, however, the percentage of meth and fentanyl positive drug tests among 1 million drug tests came in at 7.9 percent of all tests. That’s a 798 percent increase from the 2013 numbers.

It does not take a genius to determine what an increase in cocaine and fentanyl use or meth and fentanyl use means for the population.

Preliminary Conclusions

Paramedics and the addicts

When we look to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’ll see a drastic increase in drug overdose deaths involving cocaine and meth. Why? It is most likely because cocaine users and meth users are starting to use fentanyl too—and it’s killing them.

According to the CDC’s cited report, though cocaine overdose deaths decreased from 2006 to 2012, cocaine overdose deaths increased from 2012 to 2017. It is no coincidence that this was the same time that cocaine users started using fentanyl too. The CDC states that, from 2012 to 2017, overdose deaths involving cocaine increased by 34 percent.

We see a similar story from the CDC for the psychostimulant class of drugs, of which meth is likely the most prominent drug. According to the same CDC publication, death rate from psychostimulants has been on the rise since 2010. And the death rate from psychostimulants has also increased immensely in just the last few years. The CDC states that more than 10,000 people died from an overdose involving a psychostimulant in 2017. That represents a 37 percent increase just from 2016 to 2017. Again, it is likely that most of those individuals who died were also using fentanyl.

Expert Commentary on the Subject and a Way Out

For commentary on the subject, we can look to a San Diego-based drug testing company called Millennium Health. Millennium Health contributed to the research. Bob Twillman, a consultant with the company, commented on the rise of poly-substance abuse and what that means for drug users:

“The increasingly common concurrent use of fentanyl with cocaine or methamphetamine may help explain the recent sharp increases in overdose deaths involving stimulants…”

The increasingly common concurrent use of fentanyl with cocaine or methamphetamine may help explain the recent sharp increases in overdose deaths involving stimulants. It is still undetermined if these combinations are created by dealers or users, and if by users, if this simply reflects a shift from heroin to fentanyl as the opioid being used. Clinicians and patients both should be aware of the potential consequences of fentanyl exposure, knowingly or unknowingly, and take the necessary steps to maximize patient safety.

The evidence is unmistakable, and experts are quite concerned. More people are dying from drug use, and a big part of that seems to be because drug users are using riskier and riskier drug substances and combining the use of multiple drugs. Such is a lethal trend and the primary reason for why we are losing more people to drug overdoses every year.

If you are seeking help for a family member or loved one who is struggling with a drug habit, the way out of a vicious drug crisis is with the help of a residential drug treatment center. Narconon has perfected the approach for freeing people from opioid addiction and poly-drug use. Helping someone who is struggling with an addiction to multiple drugs is no easy task, and such a venture must be attempted with caution, as these are highly toxic and potentially lethal drugs being used regularly by your loved one. Be sure to get them the right help, and do so as soon as possible.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.