January 5, 2024

The lethal surge: How fentanyl addiction has taken hold of young Americans

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According to the US National Institute of Health three million American citizens have had or currently suffer from opioid use disorder (OUD).

Picture: K-State Research and Extension | Flickr

Leading figures and organisations in the US have warned about the dangers of opioid use in the country in the wake of a “crisis”, which is killing thousands of people through overdoses.

Shatterproof, a non-profit organisation “committed to ending the devastation addiction causes families” also warns of the dangers of the synthetic drug fentanyl with 6 out of every 10 fake prescription pills containing a lethal dose of the drug.

It calls for awareness of the misuse of opioid medication, which can lead to “serious consequences or even death” and for young people to be educated on the potency and dangers in order to protect themselves.

The US has been grappling with an opioid crisis for decades, culminating in the addiction to painkillers in the country being declared a national emergency in 2017, with then-president Donald Trump at the time saying it was a “serious problem.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine.

Over recent years, fentanyl, a painkiller opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, has infiltrated the lives of many Americans. It is a prescription drug that is used to treat severe pain in the US but is also made and used illegally.

Shatterproof said: “Fentanyl is everywhere, No community is safe from this opioid. In fact, fentanyl is involved in more deaths of Americans under 50 than any other cause of death. This includes heart disease, cancer, homicide, suicide, and other accidents.”

According to The New York Times, fentanyl and other drugs have over time displaced heroin and other opioids in illicit American drug markets since 2015 leading to a ‘surge in addiction and overdose deaths’.

In 2016, one in five deaths among young adults was opioid-related. And in 2021, around 70,000 people died after taking fentanyl, according to the NIDA. In one study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it was found that 60% of counterfeit pills contained a lethal dose of fentanyl which resulted in a public safety alert.

But, the crisis has taken a more sinister turn with drugs such as xylazine, a cheap veterinary tranquiliser, being used as a bulking agent mixed with other drugs (usually opioids like fentanyl), creating a dangerous new drug called ‘tranq dope’.

In March, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warned that almost a quarter of American fentanyl powder now contains xylazine.

Xylazine induces a trance-like state for hours on end (making users more vulnerable to engaging in violence) and causes scaly wounds that doctors allege are so severe that they resemble chemical burns on the skin that spread and worsen quickly, which the DEA reported sometime cause the user to need amputation.

Because xylazine is a sedative, not an opioid, it is harder to treat in conjecture since traditional opioid overdose antidotes are ineffective against the drug, further contributing to its fatality. In fact, xylazine is not frequently tested for by hospitals, and since it is FDA approved as a veterinary-prescribed painkiller, it has not been as closely followed by federal law enforcement.

But how do drugs like xylazine and fentanyl reach American streets?

Xylazine was first discovered in Puerto Rico, later “storming” Philadelphia due to its cheap and unregulated nature. The global fentanyl supply chain has its roots in China. Chinese companies either mass produce fentanyl or sell precursory drugs to prolific Mexican cartels such as Sinaloa, who smuggle the drug over the border to sell to US dealers.

Drug trafficking organisations typically distribute fentanyl by the kilogram. One kilogram of fentanyl has the potential to kill 500,000 people.

Read also:

The Fentanyl Epidemic: State Initiatives To Reduce Overdose Deaths

Fentanyl is currently available in hospitals and as a prescription drug due to its use as a painkiller – its accessibility is part of the reason why the drug is so hard to tackle for federal law enforcement.

All in all, Fentanyl is easy and cheap to make, and highly profitable.

How does it impact the young generation today?

Nearly 49 million people aged 12 or older were classified as having a substance use disorder in the past year, with 75% of recent drug-related deaths being linked to opioid use.

The impact on youth is significant. Research has demonstrated that there is a correlation between childhood-related trauma exposure and future concerns including substance use disorder, mental health concerns and physical health issues.

Dr Lisa Kugler, senior vice president of Shatterproof Treatment Atlas at Shatterproof, hopes to achieve her “goal to create systemic change in our healthcare system with regards to access and treatment for substance use disorder.”

Shatterproof is encouraging young people struggling with drug addiction or misuse to reach out for support, urging that “we can help.”


For more information on Shatterproof and the resources/treatments available for addiction, visit here

Written by:


Camilla Savelieva

Economics editor

United Kingdom

Camilla was born in 2007 in London. She joined Harbingers’ Magazine in 2023 as one of the winners of the first edition of the Harbinger Prize. In 2024, she became the Economics editor for the magazine.

She is interested in politics, history, and economics and enjoys writing about these subjects. Camilla speaks English, Russian, French, and Spanish. In her free time, she enjoys debating, reading and singing.

Edited by:


Sofia Radysh

Science Section Editor

Animal welfare correspondent

Kyiv, Ukraine | London, United Kingdom


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