May 30, 2023 - Health

Fentanyl overdoses surge in Portland

Illustration of fentanyl pills forming an up arrow.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

A string of fentanyl-related overdoses in recent weeks has drawn attention to the drug's growing presence in Portland.

Why it matters: Illicitly manufactured fentanyl has fueled a significant increase in overdoses since 2019, according to Oregon Health Authority data.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It's 50 times more potent than heroin, a lot cheaper to buy and manufacture, and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • While it is common for illegal drug manufacturers to add fentanyl to other substances like cocaine or methamphetamine to increase potency, there's been a rise in drug users seeking fentanyl on its own in the form of fake prescription pills — often referred to as "blues."

Flashback: During the weekend of May 12–14, police reported eight people died of suspected overdoses from "pure powdered fentanyl" circulating in the city's street drug marketplace.

What they're saying: "Fentanyl is a more serious public health challenge than what we've previously faced," Todd Korthuis, head of Oregon Health and Science University's Addiction Medicine Section, told Axios. "From a medical standpoint, we are operating blindly."

  • "We know fentanyl is here, but we need to have a more nimble system for testing to get a better handle on what drugs are circulating," he added.

The numbers: Since 2020, there has been a 210% increase in fentanyl-related fatalities across the state, according to the Public Health Division of the Oregon Health Authority.

  • In Multnomah County, there have been 504 drug overdose deaths since June 2022, according to May 16 data from the Tri-County Opioid Safety Coalition.
  • It's hard to say how many overdose deaths can be attributed to fentanyl, but its presence in the region's drug supply is "evolving," Korthuis said.

What we're watching: The Biden administration is calling on Congress to pass a bill aimed at tackling fentanyl trafficking in the U.S. after nationwide overdose deaths nearly quadrupled between 2016 and 2021.

  • A measure intended to educate public school students about the dangers of opioids passed the Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Tina Kotek's signature. In a press conference last month, Kotek said young people are "making choices that could be deadly on their first try."

What's next: OHSU's Korthuis stresses the importance of Narcan and naloxone, which treat overdoses; lowering the barriers for opioid treatments like buprenorphine and methadone; and widespread drug testing efforts.

  • "Fentanyl won't be the last thing in the drug supply," Korthuis said. "We need to build infrastructure for testing quickly, because more people are going to die if we can't figure out a way to have less fentanyl around and prevent people from starting it."
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