Rise of local fentanyl overdoses prompts precautions

     The rising statistics of fentanyl-induced overdoses, including three students in Colorado Springs’ District 11, sounds alarms at many major institutions. What can UCCS students do to avoid this dangerous substance, and what resources are available?  

     Cortny Stark is an assistant professor in the UCCS Department of Counseling and Human Services. She specializes in harm reduction, which is a “pragmatic approach that recognizes individual autonomy to make decisions that impact one’s health, and recognizes that use of substances — from alcohol, to illicit substances — and engagement in process addictions, exists along a continuum,” according to a reference document she provided.  

     Stark provided insight into the dangers associated with fentanyl and what makes it so dangerous. “Fentanyl is a particularly potent opiate. These days, it is often used to cut or adulterate a variety of substances. It’s been found in cocaine and a number of other opiates that were purchased and consumed by [people] that thought they were opiates created in a pharmacy in a controlled setting,” she said.  

     Stark explained how fentanyl has been increasingly found within less potent substances, usually unevenly distributed. This creates “hotspots” within the substance and is why one person can have no adverse reaction to a substance while the person sitting next to them overdoses without warning.  

     “Someone might hit a hotspot, which means there is a place within the substance where there’s a particularly high level of fentanyl, and then they experience an overdose. There’s so many different risks that are associated with [any] unregulated substance on the market,” she said.  

     Fentanyl is a highly potent and dangerous substance because of how little it takes to be fatal. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers as much as 0.00025 grams likely to be fatal and only 0.002 grams ingested to mean certain death. Generally, fentanyl is considered 50 to 300 times more potent than morphine.  

     The danger is clear and undeniable, but what can students who may encounter it do to protect themselves? 

Photo courtesy of everydayhealth.com 

     “Some of the most prominent and helpful advice regarding reducing harm and risk associated with use of substances (especially fentanyl since it seems to be out there and in everything), is we talk about ‘drugs, set and setting.’ Thinking about the substance itself, whatever it is that this person has come across or is using, what is it?” Stark said.  

     The terms “drugs,” “set” and “setting” originate from studying hallucinogenic compounds and their effects, but the practice has spread to other corners of substance use research. Stark provided a set of guidelines that elaborate on the terms: 

     Drug: What is the substance? Where did it come from? What are the intended effects? Was it cut with anything, what is its purity and potency? 

     Set: Short for ‘mindset.’ What is the user’s current mood or state of mind? If the user is currently in a difficult place mentally or not feeling stable, this will significantly impact their experience, particularly with hallucinogens. Being in an emotional state or stressed when consuming a substance will affect how the substance is metabolized and may intensify the effects. 

     Setting: Ensure the user is in a safe place, with safe people. Avoid environments where one could engage in risky behavior, like driving, operating other machinery or engaging in an activity that requires awareness of safety (i.e., swimming). 

     “We know that a diversion of medications is really popular, [people] do it all the time and don’t really think about it. If you’re using a substance and you run out, [you might] borrow some from a friend, whether it be Adderall or an opiate pain medication,” Stark said.  

     According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, over 100,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2021, many caused by the synthetic opiate fentanyl. Furthermore, between 2019 and 2020, overdose deaths due to fentanyl more than doubled. In 2020, fentanyl overdoses made up 68% of opioid-related deaths.

     The dramatic increase in drug overdoses and deaths began to spike around twenty years ago. In 2001, there were seven overdoses per 100,000 Americans. By 2021, that number  tripled to 21 per 100,000.  

     The deadly wave has unfortunately also swept across American school systems. While on spring break in Florida, a fentanyl overdose hospitalized five West Point cadets. In Colorado Springs, fentanyl killed a third D11 student in the 2021-22 school year. In addition, countless other districts reported record numbers of overdoses and deaths as well. 

     To learn more about harm reduction and access resources in Colorado, visit this link to reach Colorado’s harm reduction master list.