New Data Tracking Fentanyl’s Rise Has Lessons for the Future

The findings from a recent CDC research paper paint a painful but accurate picture of fentanyl as the most dangerous drug in America today. Parents should educate their kids about all drugs, but they should be particularly mindful of fentanyl and should go to great lengths to prevent their kids and adult sons and daughters from ever using it.

Emergency entrance

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been closely monitoring the fentanyl situation. This highly addictive drug has hooked millions of Americans and caused thousands to die from unintentional overdoses. Unfortunately, the CDC’s most recent report shows the fentanyl epidemic is getting worse, not receding.

Fentanyl Addiction: America’s Fastest Growing Epidemic

According to a May 2023 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatal overdoses caused by the synthetic opioid fentanyl spiked by nearly 300% between 2016 and 2021. In 2016, fentanyl claimed 5.7 lives for every 100,000 people in the United States. But by 2021, the drug was claiming 21.6 lives for every 100,000. For the raw numbers, there were 18,500 fatal overdoses involving fentanyl in 2016 and 70,000 such deaths in 2021.1

Another point of concern is that the biggest spike was recorded in the most recent years. Fentanyl-related deaths soared by 55% between 2019 and 2020, then rose by 25% between 2020 and 2021. Data is not yet available for fentanyl deaths from 2021 to 2023, but experts are concerned the fentanyl death rate will continue to increase in the coming years.

Fentanyl, Its Potency, and Its Increasing Presence in Other Drugs

What is fentanyl? Originally approved by the FDA for limited medicinal applications (like advanced cancer pain and palliative care), fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid. It is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and about ten times more potent than heroin. Many experts believe its potency and increasing availability are why overdoses involving fentanyl have increased exponentially in just a few years.2

In many ways, the problem has gone beyond people obtaining fentanyl from legitimate sources (like doctors and pharmacies) and then self-medicating with it. Today, most overdose deaths from fentanyl result from addicts who bought the drug illegally from a trafficker or from someone who procured the drug from clandestine labs that know how to produce illicit fentanyl.

Depressed paramedic

The production of illicit fentanyl by drug cartels has also led to the spread of the opioid into other drug supplies, causing fentanyl to negatively affect the lives of addicts who are even intentionally trying to avoid the drug by taking other drugs. This is also a big part of why the spike in deaths over the last several years hasn’t been constrained to just fentanyl. The rate of deaths involving methamphetamine more than quadrupled from 2016 to 2021, and the rate of fatal overdoses involving cocaine more than doubled.

A critical observation the CDC researchers made was that much of the increase in deaths involving meth and cocaine was likely because the drugs that addicts used at the time of their deaths had been tainted with fentanyl. Not only are fentanyl overdoses on the rise on their own, but fentanyl has also contributed to a spike in other drug-related deaths, i.e., methamphetamine and cocaine fatalities.

Finally, even as law enforcement agencies are rushing to crack down on fentanyl, fentanyl-tainted meth, and fentanyl-tainted cocaine, yet another drug trend has emerged, that of fentanyl-tainted xylazine. Xylazine is a tranquilizer commonly used by veterinarians but not approved for human use. It is not a regulated substance, it is cheap and very easy to get, and when drug gangs mix it with fentanyl, it prolongs the user’s high and makes the drug more desirable to them despite its own host of negative side effects.3

Unfortunately, xylazine does not respond to Narcan, the emergency-use opioid overdose reversal medication. When addicts overdose on fentanyl by itself, the rapid administration of Narcan will likely revive them, even if two administrations of the medicine are required. But when addicts overdose on xylazine mixed with fentanyl, they likely will not respond to Narcan, thus reducing their odds of surviving the overdose. Xylazine-related fentanyl overdoses have become so common the Federal Government has issued stark warnings about it.

The Need for Addiction Rehab for Fentanyl Addicts

Emerging drug trends like the spread of fentanyl across the nation and mixing fentanyl into other drug batches make drug addiction in the U.S. today perhaps the most dangerous it has ever been. If you know someone who is using drugs and cannot stop using them on their own, please help them find and enter a qualified residential drug treatment center as soon as possible. Please don’t wait until it is too late.

Sources Cited:

  1. CDC. “Estimates of Drug Overdose Deaths Involving Fentanyl, Methamphetamine, Cocaine, Heroin, and Oxycodone: United States, 2021.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023. ↩︎

  2. CDC. “Fentanyl.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. ↩︎

  3. DEA. “The Growing Threat of Xylazine and its Mixture with Illicit Drugs.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2022. ↩︎


After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective …
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