In the past few years, the nature of cocaine abuse has changed completely due to the increasing practice of mixing the drug with synthetic heroin, otherwise known as fentanyl. Drug rehab centers across America are reporting higher numbers of individuals seeking help for opioid and fentanyl abuse than ever before.

Just six years ago, there were fewer than 4,400 fatal overdoses involving cocaine, with less than 5% of deaths caused by mixing the drug with an opioid such as fentanyl. In the years following, this number has more than doubled, with the last recorded federal data of 2016 showing 10,400 people died of cocaine overdoses, with around 40% of fatalities also involving opioids.

This sharp increase in cocaine and fentanyl-related deaths has huge implications for America’s drug overdose epidemic which continues to rise every year. However, there are now many drug treatment programs like those we have available at Elevate that are focused on addressing this increasing problem.

One of the most sinister aspects of this new trend for cocaine abuse is that it is hitting a wider demographic of American than before. Whereas research by drug rehab centers shows it is more common for lower income people to die of cocaine overdoses, the link between the drug and fentanyl has made this more of a problem for all classes of American society.

Why Are Fatal Overdoses of Cocaine and Fentanyl Increasing so Rapidly?

It is difficult to gauge exactly what is going on to increase numbers of people abusing cocaine mixed with fentanyl. Is it because dealers are mixing opioids with cocaine to enhance the users’ experience and in doing so, their profits? Or could it be that users are deliberately lacing cocaine with fentanyl? Many addiction experts believe that it is likely to be a combination of both, although many of their explanations are purely speculative.

Here we take a look at some possible explanations for a sharp increase in the abuse of cocaine-opioid cocktails:

Explanation 1: Users are mixing fentanyl with cocaine deliberately

Despite the fact a toxicology report following an overdose death will show cocaine and fentanyl in the victim’s system, it does not necessarily mean they took both substances at the same time. As we know from experience at Elevate’s drug treatment centers, it is not unusual for people who use substances to take multiple drugs including marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, and fentanyl.

Combining substances is a common practice amongst addicts, with “speedballing” becoming a popular trend among drug users, which involves mixing cocaine and heroin to enhance the experience and prolong the high.

Now there is more availability of synthetic opioids as an alternative to heroin; this could be a plausible explanation for the rising number of cocaine-fentanyl overdoses in America.

One of the factors complicating this explanation is that many substance users are not aware they are taking fentanyl instead of heroin. According to researchers at drug rehab centers, the practice of selling opioids as an alternative to heroin has been increasing in the past few years. This is due to the fact that it is cheaper to obtain and much stronger than the street alternative. It is not surprising then that the potential for fatal overdose is much higher with fentanyl and other opioids than it is for heroin.

Drug treatment centers report that because fentanyl is much stronger than heroin, the risk of overdose is increased, particularly if the user is unaware and uses the same amount as they ordinarily would of the illicit substance. Inadvertently taking a high dose of opioids is much more likely if the user believes they are taking heroin instead.

Cocaine and heroin used together escalates the overdose risk of both substances. If heroin is actually a synthetic opioid or fentanyl instead, this risk is considerably higher and helps explain one of the reasons overdose deaths are on the rise.

The potency of fentanyl is such that individuals are recommended to seek a drug treatment program as soon as they start using so as to avoid rapidly developing an addiction to the substance.

Explanation 2: Dealers are deliberately mixing cocaine with fentanyl

Another potential explanation for America’s cocaine-fentanyl overdose epidemic is that the combining of substances is taking place before the drug hits the street. It is already commonly known that cocaine is mixed with other substances so that dealer profits are increased. For that reason, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that cocaine is being mixed with fentanyl by traffickers or dealers seeking to make more money from users who are likely to be oblivious to the fact.

There is data to support this theory. According to lab tests by NYPD, around 1% of cocaine seized and analyzed between January and March 2017 tested positive for fentanyl.

There are typically two reasons why a drug dealer or trafficker would choose to mix cocaine with fentanyl:

  • The high of cocaine is boosted considerably by fentanyl making it a cheap way to give more “kick”
  • It is a deliberate attempt to encourage more people to use, abuse and ultimately become hooked on opioids

There are some people who feel this explanation is weak, mainly because people seeking to use cocaine want an energy boost. Whereas cocaine is an “upper” or stimulant, fentanyl and other opioids have the opposite effect as depressants.

Another factor opposing this explanation is that it is unlikely that dealers would increase the risk of killing their customers by mixing cocaine with fentanyl. It is very probable that dealers are fully aware of how deadly fentanyl can be when used alone, let alone mixed with another highly potent substance such as cocaine.

Ultimately, there is no safe way to take any kind of substance and every individual will have their own response to using them. Seeking out a drug treatment program at a drug or alcohol rehab center such as Elevate leads to a shorter path to recovery, particularly if an individual has not developed serious addiction issues.

Explanation 3: Dealers are mixing cocaine with fentanyl by accident

Cross-contamination is a serious issue for criminals who process batches of different substances using the same sinks or tables and without cleaning the surfaces beforehand. These illegal processing centers handle the most lethal drugs in their purest form and so accidental cross-contamination is easily possible. Even small traces of pure fentanyl can easily find their way into a batch of cocaine headed for street dealers which can carry significant risk.

Explanation 4: Improved data collection from toxicology reports

Perhaps the most spurious explanation for the rising number of cocaine and fentanyl-related deaths is that toxicology reports have become more focused on opioid-use. This has been in response to the startling rise in prescription drug abuse experienced in America in recent years. In order to provide a more accurate picture of drug overdoses in the US, coroners and medical examiners are now focused much more on accounting for drug-related fatalities in general.

Data collected by drug and alcohol rehab centers are also vital in providing us with clues as to why there are more fatal drug overdoses today than ever before. Although addiction is a very personal illness affecting everyone differently, it is also important to view substance abuse statistics overall. Elevate is one of the rising number of drug treatment centers offering specific drug treatment programs for individuals using combined fentanyl and cocaine.

In essence, there may not have been an increase in cocaine-fentanyl deaths but there are now better systems in place to detect and report them.

Critics of this theory suggest that it doesn’t explain where the practice of mixing cocaine with fentanyl has come from, although it does provide a partial explanation.

Understanding Fentanyl

Fentanyl is a synthetic form of heroin known as an opioid and it is widely used as a pharmaceutical drug used to treat severe or chronic pain. Fentanyl can relieve post-surgery pain and is also used to treat chronic pain conditions such as cancer.

An opioid replicates the effects of heroin which is an extract from the opium poppy. Heroin has been used for centuries as a way to relieve pain during surgery. It has also been abused recreationally since its properties became known. In some senses, this is useful for addiction specialists at drug treatment centers as it provides them with a valuable insight on how to treat fentanyl dependence and addiction with an appropriate drug treatment program.

Heroin and opioids such as fentanyl work in the same way which is by blocking the pain receptors in the brain and producing an intensely pleasurable sensation by increasing dopamine production. Some of the street names of fentanyl include China girl, dance fever, crush and TNT.

The Effects of Fentanyl Abuse

Although there is no clear explanation why people are increasingly mixing cocaine with fentanyl, it is important to understand what the implications are. Fentanyl has considerably more potency than any other street drug at the current time and it is absolutely crucial that individuals abusing the substance seek professional addiction treatment.

All opioids carry a huge risk of addiction, irrespective of whether the drug is obtained by prescription or illegally. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), fentanyl abuse has reached epidemic proportions so rapidly in recent years because of its significant addictive potential.

Some of the outward symptoms a person will exhibit if they are abusing fentanyl include the following:

  • Slowed breathing
  • Fits and seizures
  • Severe and prolonged headaches
  • Dizziness and disorientation
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea and vomiting

One of the biggest risks of someone using fentanyl recreationally is that they have no tolerance to the substance, increasing the danger of fatal overdose.

When an individual has been prescribed an opioid painkiller for regular use, their bodies become used to receiving a certain amount of the drug each day. With a substance as powerful as fentanyl, it is not long before the effects of the drug appear to be weaker than when originally taken. This marks the start of a developing tolerance although the person’s pain will still be very real.

Individuals in this scenario are generally unable to get an increased dose from their physician who is more than aware of the dangerous potential of fentanyl. This leads them to seek illegal alternatives in an attempt to manage their pain.

On the flip side, a person who is “new” to fentanyl will not have gradually increased a dose over time and introducing the body to the substance without tolerance is incredibly dangerous. Just taking the drug for the first time can depress the respiratory system to a dangerous low, often to the point of failure and ultimately death. Fentanyl can be lethal in doses as small as 2 milligrams according to USA Today.

Fentanyl Drug Combinations

Because fentanyl is generally manufactured in white powder form, it is easy to mix with other substances or press into pills. Once processed, fentanyl can be hidden in plain sight and be used to lace all sorts of other drugs like cocaine and heroin or used alone but passed off as another less lethal painkiller such as Norco. One of the reasons fentanyl is mostly combined with heroin and cocaine is because it can be illegally transported in much smaller batches than other substances while packing a much bigger punch.

While drugs like heroin and cocaine are highly addictive on their own, fentanyl accelerates the risk significantly. When fentanyl is combined with another substance it can be very quick to be deadly, mainly because the effects of the chemical combination are very often unpredictable and impossible to reverse. However, because it generally comes in white powder form, it is impossible to detect the difference between heroin, fentanyl or cocaine just by looking at it.

Addressing the Root Cause of Prescription Drug Addiction to Combat America’s Opiate Crisis

Irrespective of the explanations behind the increasing practice of mixing cocaine with fentanyl, addiction experts are agreed that the root causes need to be addressed.  In terms of the opioid epidemic, it is widely acknowledged that prescription painkillers are the most common catalysts for individuals developing substance abuse issues.

Elevate’s drug and alcohol treatment centers offer individuals the opportunity to explore their own substance abuse and address the issues causing it. We recognize that many people struggling with drug addiction have been significantly damaged by chemicals and for that reason offer a completely natural approach.

The human body is incredibly powerful and has the capacity to heal itself once armed with the tools and skills to tap into this ability. Elevate’s holistic approach to detox and rehab ensures patients receive healing on an emotional, physical and psychological level, with continued support in recovery to protect sobriety.