Throughout my 25 years serving as an emergency physician, 16 in Central Washington, I have never seen a crisis develop and then multiply as drastically as fentanyl overdoses have.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 107,375 people in the United States died of drug overdoses and drug poisonings in the 12-month period ending in January 2022 with 67 percent of those deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Here in Washington State, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl, have increased 10-fold just over the past year—and I’ve seen it firsthand.
Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, leading to high dependency and addiction. Only 2 milligrams of fentanyl is needed to kill most people, which is equivalent to just a few grains of salt. The death rate from this synthetic opioid has been increasing at alarming rates in the past few years, and emergency rooms like mine are being flooded with these overdose cases. The fentanyl crisis is not just a drug addiction issue—it’s a multi-pronged public health crisis that stops at no lines or victims. Healthcare professionals have been buffeted from crisis to crisis over the last few years, but this one is entirely preventable. It’s past time we take substantive action to address this crisis that is killing off thousands of our children every year. We need common-sense legislation to help our frontline workers and victims while holding the drug dealers and manufacturers accountable.
First, our healthcare professionals who are battling this crisis on the frontlines need more resources. The COVID-19 pandemic swept through medical staffing and resources, leaving us overwhelmed and inadequately prepared to not only handle the influx of patients from the pandemic, but also the increased rates of overdoses from this lethal drug. Supporting our healthcare workers is the first step to successfully maneuvering through this crisis. Much like our healthcare workers who are fighting this crisis in the emergency rooms, our law enforcement officers are fighting this crisis on the streets.
Right now, fentanyl-related substances are classified as Schedule II drugs, meaning that medical-grade fentanyl does have a use in some cases. However, bad actors are creating different variants of fentanyl that are extremely lethal. By exploiting loopholes, this drug is sold on the streets without being classified as Schedule I drugs by law enforcement.
Classifying fentanyl as a Schedule I substance, meaning that it would have no acceptable medical use, would help ensure that law enforcement can keep them off the streets. Congressman Dan Newhouse, who represents us here in Central Washington, introduced the bipartisan Save Americans from the Fentanyl Emergency Act (SAFE Act) earlier this year to permanently schedule all fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs. It’s a great first step. I commend Rep. Newhouse for his unwavering dedication to help curb this crisis and hope he recognizes we can’t stop there.
Fentanyl primarily enters the United States through our southern border. Open-border policies have allowed fentanyl, amongst other drugs, to flow freely over the border with little to no prevention. Securing our southern border and enforcing the laws of the land will go a long way in preventing fentanyl from plaguing our communities in the first place.
The fentanyl and opioid crisis is not a political one—it’s a public health crisis that has no limits and is only getting worse by the day. Families are being torn apart and communities are being upended. Law enforcement are being forced to play a lethal game of whack-a-mole and healthcare professionals like myself are doing all we can to stem the tide. More support for those of us battling this crisis on the frontlines and common-sense legislation to stop the flow of this deadly drug is essential to save thousands of lives.
Author: Dr. Raul Garcia, Medical Director
Astria Toppenish Hospital Yakima County, Washington State, Executive Director Opportunity for Washington
in Partnership with Congressman Dan Newhouse’s Office
Release Date: March 12, 2023