Fentanyl Deaths Rose More than Ten-Fold in Five Years

Rushing emergency ambulance

The United States is in the midst of an overdose epidemic. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die from drug overdoses. This has gone on since the early-2000s. With hundreds of thousands of lives lost to overdoses since the beginning of the crisis, one might think we’ve become numb to those losses. Is it possible that new information might shake us loose from apathy?

A detailed report by the Rand Corporation showed us that, in the last five years, U.S. deaths from synthetic fentanyl and other synthetic opioids increased by more than 10-fold. The loss of life due to just one type of drug has been so rapid that the crisis is now a threat to all of us.

A Soaring, Lethal Drug Problem

According to the Rand Corporation’s research, about 3,000 people died from deaths from synthetic opioid drugs in 2013. Fentanyl was the most common of these. In 2018, the death toll from this class of drug rose to 30,000. There are now twice as many deaths each year from synthetic opioids than there are from heroin. While fentanyl is not present in every one of these deaths, fentanyl is undoubtedly the most common opioid involved in such overdoses.

The Rand researchers insist that this particular epidemic, tens of thousands dying from human-made drugs intended to help us, is unprecedented. Yes, there have been fatal drug crises in the U.S. before. But they always involved illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, etc. Never before have so many died from a legal drug manufactured to relieve pain.

Dr. Bryce Pardo, an associate policy researcher at Rand Corporation, states that this crisis is different because the spread of synthetic opioids is largely driven by suppliers' decisions, not by user demand. Most people who use opioids are not asking for fentanyl and would prefer to avoid exposure.

Dr. Pardo gets it right on the first try. The big reason why synthetic, human-made opioids have created the most lethal drug epidemic in American history is because the drugs are human-made. Because the medications are legal, encouraged, and practically forced into the pockets of physicians and onto the shelves of pharmacies, this epidemic has been able to grow far beyond any illegal street drug.

Fentanyl Statistics – The CDC Urges Caution

The Rand Corporation is not the only organization ringing an alarm bell regarding synthetic opiates and fentanyl. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is another group that has published countless reports on the striking rise in overdose deaths of this nature.

Pharmaceutical companies manufacture most synthetic opioids. In recent years, however, clandestine drug labs and drug cartels in other countries have also begun manufacturing these drugs. They saw a growing interest in such drugs in the U.S., and they capitalized on it. Furthermore, such groups often tweak chemical ingredients to make “super drugs.” The new hybrid drugs are incredibly potent and quite lethal.

The CDC reported that 70,237 people died from drug overdoses in 2017. The CDC also said that 47,600 of those deaths involved opioid drugs. More than 28,400 of those deaths involved fentanyl or a fentanyl-like drug, according to the CDC (and as published in a NIDA report).

The CDC raises awareness and urges caution regarding synthetic opioids. Recently the CDC has reported that the problem is two-fold. Pharma-made synthetic opioids are dangerous and extremely over-used. And now illegally-made synthetic opioids and fentanyl are a growing problem.

“… Most recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose, and death in the U.S. are linked to illegally made fentanyl. It is sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect. It is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product—with or without the user’s knowledge—to increase its euphoric effects.”

Quoting the CDC, “Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever, approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Most recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose, and death in the U.S. are linked to illegally made fentanyl. It is sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect. It is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product—with or without the user’s knowledge—to increase its euphoric effects.”

How Can We Combat the Fentanyl Epidemic?

Talking with an young girl about addiction problems.

We can no longer turn a blind eye to the drug addiction epidemic. We can no longer assume that this problem won’t happen to our loved ones. The opioid epidemic is a national public health emergency. It will take all of our combined efforts to address it.

In a nation assailed on all sides by legal yet addictive pharmaceutical drugs, plus illegally-made synthetic opioids, heroin, and other types of drugs, we can’t ignore the problem and say, “That will never happen to me.”

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “In 2017, approximately 19.7 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder (SUD) related to their use of alcohol or illicit drugs in the past year, including 14.5 million people who had an alcohol use disorder and 7.5 million people who had an illicit drug use disorder.”

The U.S. population clock indicates that there are close to 330 million people in the United States. If 19.7 million people are addicted to drugs and alcohol, that’s about six percent of the U.S. population. Whether we know it or not, we are all probably connected in some way to someone who struggles with a substance problem. That’s why we all need to take steps towards reversing the addiction crisis.

If you know someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, do your best to get them help through a residential treatment center. Residential drug rehabs that offer long-term programs create an environment of support, safety, and forward progress. These centers have the tools, staff, know-how, and resources necessary for addressing the physical, behavioral, mental, and spiritual sides of addiction. Such programs create the safest setting possible for helping people break free from the trap of addiction. If someone you know needs help, make sure they get it as soon as possible. It could mean saving a life.


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.