Prince's overdose puts national focus on opioids

Jun 03, 2016, 4:12 PM EDT
Painkillers. (Source: Magic Madzik/flickr)
Painkillers. (Source: Magic Madzik/flickr)

In the weeks following music icon Prince's death, a spotlight has been refreshed on opioids and prescription drug use in the U.S. as people who knew the musician report that he was addicted to opioids. This week, Prince's autopsy revealed that he died of an overdose of fentanyl, a drug introduced into medical practices as an IV anesthetic in the 1960s, according to WebMD. That outlet's report continues:

Today [fentanyl is] legally available by prescription as a treatment for cancer pain that returns while you're on other opioids. But it's also made in clandestine labs and imported into the U.S. as a street drug.

People who become addicted to prescription opioids often turn to street drugs when it becomes too hard or expensive to get refills of the prescriptions they’re abusing.
Fentanyl is cheaper than heroin, so drug dealers lace their products with it to increase their profit margins. People who buy heroin often don’t know that it has been cut with fentanyl.
“It’s 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine and 20 to 40 times stronger than heroin,” says Melvin Patterson, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. 
Criminal penalties for possessing the highly addictive opioid substance that authorities say killed music icon Prince could soon be going up, if one senator gets her way.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has offered amendments to a defense spending bill that would trigger a mandatory, minimum five-year prison term for anyone caught with as little as half a gram of fentanyl. The current trigger for such a punishment is 20 times that amount of the drug. Fentanyl is often used in hospitals to treat severe pain.
But, in recent years, it's contributed to a spike in overdose deaths, particularly in New England. The dangers of the drug are not in dispute. But advocates are bitterly divided over whether to treat fentanyl use as a criminal justice crisis or a public health emergency.
Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller. Patients who have built up a tolerance to other prescription painkillers sometimes seek it out, and it is partly responsible for a recent surge in overdose deaths in some parts of the country. Because of its risks, it is tightly controlled by the Food and Drug Administration, but much of it is manufactured illegally.
Kent Bailey, head of the DEA in Minneapolis, said the agency will continue investigating along with Carver County authorities and the U.S. Attorney's Office. He declined to offer details, but said "rest assured, we will be thorough."