Fentanyl: The drug 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin
A drug 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin hospitalized 12 people in Wairarapa in the space of a weekend. Experts and health advocates are calling for stronger support systems amid reports of fentanyl circulating in the community.
But what is fentanyl, why is it so dangerous and how do you protect yourself against the substance that is wreaking havoc overseas?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate, used as a painkiller in legitimate medical settings, according to Massey University associate professor Chris Wilkins.
“What’s unusual about fentanyl is that it’s a synthetic opioid. It’s not like heroin or morphine that comes from the opium plant, it’s basically made in the lab,” he said.
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“Fentanyl is extremely potent, it’s used in situations where people are in severe pain.”
The first fentanyl product in New Zealand was approved in December 1969, according to the Department of Health.
Prescription fentanyl is usually applied as a patch to the skin, but it can also be given as an injection or lozenge for severe and/or constant pain such as that caused by cancer or experienced after surgery .
Fentanyl is also known to be used recreationally, both intentionally and unintentionally, via tainted party drugs such as MDMA and cocaine.
New Zealand Drug Foundation deputy director Ben Birks-Ang said “unexpected fentanyl use” was a huge risk.
“This current situation is where people were given a substance that was being sold as something else, and they didn’t realize there was fentanyl in it,” he said.
The substance was sold as cocaine and methamphetamine in Wairarapa over the weekend.
“It depends on body weight, but 2 milligrams is enough to kill someone, it’s really tiny. That’s the danger, if someone took something else and it only contains a small amount of fentanyl … That’s enough to give him an opioid overdose,” Birks-Ang said.
“You can sell fentanyl as a counterfeit for a bunch of different drugs like morphine, cocaine and meth, it’s pretty easy to disguise as something else,” Wilkins said.
Birks-Ang said the best way to stay safe is for people to test the drugs they plan to take.
“People can do this at a free, legal, completely confidential drug control clinic…the other thing they can do is use a fentanyl test strip,” he said.
A fentanyl test strip is a chemical test that detects the presence of fentanyl in a drug sample.
“Following the event in Wairarapa, a series of local prevention initiatives are underway,” said a spokesman for the Ministry of Health.
A local “pop-up” drug control event was held in Masterton on June 30.
Fentanyl test strips were shared among health providers to ensure local access in Wairarapa at little or no cost.
Interim Health NZ had also approved funding from the NZ Drug Foundation to purchase an additional 7,000 fentanyl test strips. These were expected in New Zealand as early as next week.
The Department of Health said the supply of naloxone, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses, was important for emergency responders and there were no supply issues.
The ministry has not collected data on the number of hospitalizations due to fentanyl.
Drug control clinics, times and locations can be found here.
Fentanyl test strips can be found here.
Where to get help for addiction
- Alcoholics Anonymous 0800 229 6757
- Alcohol and Drug Helpline 0800 787 797 or email email@example.com
- higher ground (09) 834 0017
- Narcotics Anonymous 0800 NA TODAY (0800 628 632)
- Odyssey Trust 09 638 4957
- The Salvation Army Bridge Program 0800 53 00 00
- If it is an emergency or if you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 111.