The Centers for Disease Control reported that more than 81,200 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in June 2020. That was the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded. Synthetic opioids appear to be the driver of the increases, primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl. Drug overdose deaths are a leading contributor to premature death and are largely preventable.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid pain reliever that is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic. Common street names include Apache, China Girl, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Great Bear, Jackpot, Tango and Cash.

Fentanyl can be injected, snorted/sniffed, smoked, taken orally by pill or tablet, and spiked onto blotter paper. Fentanyl patches are abused by removing its gel contents and then injecting or ingesting these contents. Fentanyl is a Schedule II narcotic under the United States Controlled Substances Act.

In November of last year, a couple of young men (19 years old) died almost immediately after ingesting a drug stamped Percocet laced with fentanyl. Neither of the young men had a history of drug use. Their parents do not know why they decided to take a pill that evening in November. They were not found until the next morning. Both of these young men had great aspirations to succeed.

In the autopsy, the doctor revealed that the amount of fentanyl in their bodies was enough to kill 10 adult males. Most likely they were just curious young men thinking of experimenting with pills because they thought they were safe. They never had a chance. Some would say one bad choice. Literally, life is about making the right choices and avoiding those that can cause fatal harm.

Two good young men who had a wonderful life ahead of themselves left a grieving family with a pain that will never end; two beautiful lives gone forever.

The CDC reported that overdose deaths involving cocaine increased by 26.5% and overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, increased 34.8% during the 12-month period from May 2019 to 2020. The numbers reveal that the number of deaths involving psychostimulants now exceeds the number of cocaine-involved deaths.

The CDC data revealed that 37 of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions with synthetic opioid data reported increases in overdose deaths.

The annual report from Tennessee’s Overdose Report for 2020 continues to show an increase in all drug overdose deaths. The most recent collection of data is from the Tennessee Department of Health Death Statistical Files. There is a time lag because drug overdose deaths usually are pending lengthy investigations. The reeport does not reflect the most recent data.

The total number of Tennesseans who died from a drug overdose in a 12-month period ending June 2020 was 2,615 according to CDC data. In June 2019 the total reported was 1,965. That is an increase of 50 individuals (33.1%) who have died from an overdose in one year.

In Tennessee from 2014 to 2018 drug overdose deaths increased nearly 44%. The total drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased by 48% (from 500 to 742) between 2017 and 2018. The number of overdose deaths involving heroin increased from 311 to 367. Overdose deaths involving methamphetamine have increased sharply in the past five years also.

The TOR reports stated that individuals are unaware they are taking drugs in combination with other illicit substances (called polydrugs). The most common substance found in combination with other substances is fentanyl. The majority of Tennessee opioid overdose deaths are from polydrugs.

All age levels (male and female) from 18 years old to over 55 years old show increases in overdose deaths during the last 4 years in Tennessee according to the report.

Tennessee ranked as the third-highest in prescribing opioid prescriptions in the U.S. in 2018. Fortunately, medical providers have found alternatives to opioids and are prescribing less addictive prescriptions.

Stimulant overdose deaths include both illicit drugs (such as methamphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy) as well as drugs that can be legally obtained by prescription, such as medications prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — ADHD — and depression.

The number of non-fatal drug overdoses from data collected from all outpatient visits and inpatient stays in Tennessee is more than 22,000 in one year. This is a visit to an emergency room or a hospital stay that can be avoided.

Once you are addicted to any drug, it is extremely difficult to reverse that addiction. Parents and siblings of an addicted family member can all attest to the fact that persuading and getting a member of the family into a drug rehab program can be devastating to the family unit and sometimes costly.

As to the two young men who died almost instantly from an overdose, parents are most often the ones who suffer the most among the living. The answer to the question “why” will never be answered. The grief in the family will linger until their passing and perhaps even longer among the siblings.

The CDC says it is important to educate people about the dangers of experimenting with drugs. The education process has to start early and continue until we see a marked decline in overdose deaths due to illicit drugs. In addition, those who traffic in illicit drugs should serve long prison sentences.

The legislative agenda should include strict laws, not only for punishment, but also laws to inform and reverse the current upward trend. After all, it is the responsibility of parents to teach their children to not be bullied by their peers to do something as dangerous as experimenting with drugs. There should be no hesitation with words, drugs and especially illicit drugs, will kill you.

The community has some responsibility in helping to raise a child to be responsible as they enter into adulthood. Schools do a wonderful job of informing students about drugs, illicit drugs and overdoses. Being informed does not always equate with avoidance from fatal harm when being bullied or with experimentation.

Adults in leadership roles need to help eradicate trafficking in illicit drugs. It is a shared community responsibility. Schools cannot do the job alone. It requires adults in the community to continue the reinforcement that illicit drugs can and most likely will kill you.

Community Voices columnist Ed McKinney of Johnson City is a retired business educator.

Recommended for you