‘Bodies can’t take it’: Fentanyl involved in nearly half of drug overdose deaths

A report in May in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of the 42,249 opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States in 2016, nearly 46 percent involved fentanyl, while heroin played a role in 37 percent. Just six years earlier, fentanyl appeared in only 14 percent of opioid-related deaths.

Fentanyl has traveled a similar trajectory in Indianapolis, research conducted by an IUPUI sociologist shows. Before about 2013, fewer than 15 percent of fatal overdose cases involved fentanyl, according to data from the Marion County Coroner’s Office. After that year, rates rose exponentially nearly reaching 50 percent by 2017, said Brad Ray, assistant professor at IUPUI’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“We found fentanyl present in 47 percent of cases. That’s nearly half of every single person that dies of a drug overdose,” Ray said. “That’s far outpaced heroin.”

The Indianapolis study also found that over time, fentanyl showed up more on its own, rather than along with opioids. But the national research has found that fentanyl is also frequently involved in overdose deaths with non-opioid drugs such as cocaine and benzodiazepine.

Researchers have no way of knowing whether those who take drugs that include fentanyl know it’s among the ingredients. They do not know whether those who purchase it on the street are seeking that drug or if they’re just looking for a high without worrying what substance will provide it.

“The true answer to that is we have no clue. It is sometimes a little frustrating to me to hear folks say, ‘Oh yes everybody’s looking for this stuff and they want it,’” Ray said. “These are not folks that are going to the liquor store and deciding if they want a Pinot Noir or IPA. … They are addicted to drugs, and they’re not picky in the drugs they use.”

Shari Rudavsky/Indianapolis Star