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Editorial: Fentanyl presents greatest challenge in preventing overdose deaths

Across Maryland, including Carroll County, more people died from overdoses in 2015 than any time in the past six years, according to the latest statistics from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released Thursday. About 86 percent of the 1,259 overdose deaths in Maryland in 2015 involved opioids such as heroin and prescription painkillers, underscoring the epidemic plaguing the nation.

Drug-related deaths were up in every county in Central Maryland, although Carroll officials are optimistic that initiatives put in place by the Carroll County State's Attorney and Sheriff's Office in the second half of last year will start to see those numbers level off and, eventually, start declining.

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Good news — if you can call it that — is that the number of overdose-related deaths in Carroll only increased by two, from 38 to 40. It seems to indicate some progress is being made in stabilizing the number of deaths.

What is worrisome about the numbers is the large spike in fentanyl-related deaths in Carroll and statewide from 2014 to 2015. Here, deaths caused by fentanyl nearly tripled, from four to 11. Across Maryland, the number jumped about 83 percent to 340 deaths in 2015.

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Fentanyl is an opioid painkiller that is several times more potent than morphine or heroin. Unlike heroin, it can be produced synthetically in a lab at a much lower cost, so it becomes attractive for drug dealers to use to "cut" heroin, allowing them to sell it at a higher profit.

Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible for users to identify drugs that have been laced with deadly amounts of fentanyl until it is too late. A batch of heroin cut with fentanyl that comes into the community can quickly cause a spike in deaths, as it did in December of last year, when five people fatally overdosed because of the synthetic drug.

While antidotes like Naloxone have proven effective in reversing a potentially fatal overdose, and both Maryland and Carroll have made it more widely available, it must be administered quickly to save someone's life.

And as long as dealers can make more money by substituting heroin with a cheaper synthetic, fentanyl will continue to be a problem and deaths will continue to spike because of it.

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There is no obvious way to specifically address fentanyl's prevalence at the local level. The best bet is continuing to try to get addicts into treatment before they unknowingly end up with a deadly batch.

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