Conference Coverage

Warn patients about illicit drugs doctored with fentanyl



Fentanyl is now threatening overdoses in patients exposed to essentially any of the full array of recreational drugs – not just opioids – that are being sold illicitly, according to an overview of the problem presented at the virtual Psychopharmacology Update presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists.

Fentanyl powder US DEA

“Fentanyl can now be found in cocaine and methamphetamine. At this point, there is really no way to predict what is in a [street] drug,” Edwin A. Salsitz, MD, said at the meeting, sponsored by Medscape Live. He is associate clinical professor of medicine who works in the division of chemical dependency at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.

As proof of the frequency with which fentanyl is now being used as an additive, most patients with a drug use disorder, regardless of their drug of choice, are testing positive for fentanyl at Dr. Salsitz’s center. Many of those with positive fentanyl tests are unaware that their drugs had been doctored with this agent.

Relative to drugs sold as an opioid, such as heroin or oxycodone, the fentanyl dose in nonopioid drugs is typically more modest, but Dr. Salsitz pointed out that those expecting cocaine or methamphetamine often “have no heroin tolerance, so they are more vulnerable” to the adverse effects of fentanyl, including an overdose.

Although opioid tolerance might improve the chances for surviving a fentanyl overdose, the toxicology of fentanyl is not the same as other opioids. Death from heroin is typically a result of respiratory depression, but the onset is relatively slow, providing a greater opportunity to administer a reversal agent, such as naloxone.

Fentanyl not only produces respiratory depression but skeletal muscle rigidity. The rapid onset of “wooden chest syndrome” can occur within minutes, making the opportunity for intervention much smaller, Dr. Salsitz said.

To illustrate the phenomenon, Dr. Salsitz recounted a case.

After an argument with his mother, a 26-year-old male with a long history of intravenous drug use went to his bedroom. His mother, responding to the sound of a loud thud, rushed to the bedroom to find her son on the floor with a needle still in his arm. Resuscitation efforts by the mother and by the emergency responders, who arrived quickly, failed.

“The speed of his death made it clear that it was fentanyl related, and the postmortem toxicology confirmed that the exposure involved both heroin and fentanyl,” Dr. Salsitz said.

After the first wave of deaths in the opioid epidemic, which was attributed to inappropriate use of prescription opioids, the second wave was driven by heroin. In that wave, patients who became addicted to prescription opioids but were having more difficulty gaining access to them, turned to far cheaper and readily available street heroin. The third wave, driven by fentanyl, began several years ago when sellers of heroin began adding this synthetic opioid, which is relatively cheap, to intensify the high.

It is not expected to end quickly. The fentanyl added to heroin was never a prescription version. Rather, Dr. Salsitz said, it is synthesized in laboratories in China, Mexico, and the United States. It is relatively easy to produce and compact, which makes it easy to transport.

Exacerbating the risks that fentanyl poses when added to street drugs, even more potent versions, such as carfentanil, are also being added to cocaine, methamphetamines, and other nonopioid illicit drugs. When compared on a per-milligram basis, fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than heroin, but carfentanil is about 100 times more potent than fentanyl, according to Dr. Salsitz.

When the third wave of deaths in the opioid epidemic began around 2013, prescriptions of fentanyl, like many other opioid-type therapies were declining. The “perfect storm” that initiated the opioid epidemic was a product of intense focus on pain control and a misperception that prescription opioids posed a low risk of abuse potential, Dr. Salsitz said. By the time fentanyl was driving opioid deaths, the risks of opioids were widely appreciated and their use for prescription analgesia was declining.

Citing several cases, Dr. Salsitz noted that only 20 years after clinicians were being successfully sued for not offering enough analgesia, they were now going to jail for prescribing these drugs too liberally.

According to Dr. Salsitz, the pendulum might now have swung too far in the other direction so that at least some patients are no longer receiving adequate pain control. While psychiatrists might not have a role in this issue, Dr. Salsitz did see a role for these specialists in protecting patients from the adverse consequences of using illicit drugs doctored with fentanyl.

Noting that individuals with psychiatric disorders are more likely than the general population to self-medicate with drugs purchased illegally, Dr. Salsitz encouraged psychiatrists “to get involved” in asking about drug use and counseling patients on the risks of fentanyl substitution or additives.

“The message is that no one knows what are in these drugs, anymore,” he said.

In addition to making patients aware that many street drugs are now contaminated with fentanyl, Dr. Salsitz provided some safety tips. He suggested instructing patients to take a low dose of any newly acquired drug to gauge its effect, to avoid taking drugs alone, and to avoid mixing drugs. He also recommended using rapid fentanyl test strips in order to detect fentanyl contamination.

Even for the many psychiatrists who do not feel comfortable managing addiction, Dr. Salsitz recommended a proactive approach to address the current threat.


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