Fentanyl-Laced Cocaine Deaths on the Rise

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Published: 05/23/2018 | Author:

Cocaine-related deaths are rising across the U.S. — many of which are being caused by a mixture of fentanyl and cocaine. The rate of cocaine deaths increased by 52.4% from 2015 to 2016, and continues to rise as fentanyl is increasingly being added to illicit street drugs. Fentanyl in cocaine can be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin, and can easily lead to cocaine overdose in those who risk using this deadly drug combination.

Why are people putting fentanyl in cocaine, and what steps should you take when witnessing a cocaine overdose? Here’s a closer look at the rate of cocaine deaths in the U.S., and how you or a loved one can get help for cocaine addiction and lower the risk for cocaine overdose.

U.S. Cocaine Fatalities

cocaine deaths

Fentanyl is associated with 40% of cocaine deaths.

The number of cocaine overdose deaths in the U.S. doubled between 2001 and 2006, but decreased by 44% from 2006 to 2010. Cocaine overdose deaths increased once again by 25% from 2014 to 2015 for a death toll of 6,784, which was more than any other year in the previous decade since 2006, when 7,448 people died from cocaine overdose.

The number of cocaine deaths in the U.S. increased for the fourth consecutive year in 2015, but only 34% were non-opioid related. In comparison, 54% of cocaine deaths in 2007 were non-opioid related. The mixing of cocaine with opioids like fentanyl is becoming more prevalent in the U.S. with each passing year, and is causing an uptick of deaths that could lead to another cocaine crisis, and a worsened opioid crisis.

In 2012, the number of cocaine overdose deaths in the U.S. came in at just over 4,400, with roughly 4% of those deaths involving fentanyl or other synthetic opioids. In 2016, the number of cocaine deaths more than doubled to nearly 10,400, with 40% of those deaths involving fentanyl. Many times, coroners cannot distinguish which drug is the primary cause of an overdose death involving cocaine and fentanyl.

How Fentanyl Causes Cocaine Overdose

Cocaine stimulates the central nervous system to increase energy, talkativeness, and alertness, while opioids like fentanyl depress the central nervous system to produce effects of deep relaxation, pain relief, and slower breathing. When the two drugs are used together, the brain can end up sending mixed signals to the body regarding what to do, or can cause users to think they’re either more tolerant or less high than they really are. This increases the risk for continued drug use, along with the risk for a deadly overdose. An overdose can also occur when the effects of cocaine wear off and are no longer able to counteract the effects of fentanyl — leading to respiratory depression.

Cocaine used with fentanyl or heroin is a drug combination known as a speedball. The effects of cocaine can last anywhere between a few minutes to an hour, and is followed by a crash accompanied by severe drug cravings, exhaustion, and depression. Many who use speedballs do so in an effort to experience the stimulating effects of cocaine without suffering the intense crash that normally follows the short-lasted high. Those who practice speedballing hope that fentanyl or heroin will counteract the effects of the crash following cocaine use, and allow them to experience a more relaxing comedown.

Sometimes, people who overdose on cocaine aren’t even aware their drugs have been tainted with fentanyl. A cocaine overdose can happen when people think they’re only using cocaine, but are using drugs that have been mixed or cut with fentanyl. Cocaine users who are unprepared for the effects of fentanyl may suffer an overdose relatively quickly, especially when they’re using high amounts of cocaine.

Why Put Fentanyl in Cocaine?

Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, up to 100 times stronger than morphine, and is potent enough to trigger an overdose even in those who are tolerant to high amounts of cocaine and/or other opioids. Considering its high potential to cause an overdose, why would anyone put fentanyl in cocaine? Aside from those who purposely combine these drugs to counteract the crash following cocaine use, drug dealers may put fentanyl in cocaine to offer their customers a more powerful high, and to make more money since fentanyl is often cheaper than cocaine.

Fentanyl can be purchased at very low prices from the streets and from China via the Internet. Drug traffickers can usually buy a kilogram of fentanyl powder for just a few thousand dollars from China, and mix it with other illicit drugs such as counterfeit painkillers, heroin, meth, and cocaine. Traffickers and street dealers can often make up to millions just by replacing amounts of these drugs with fentanyl.

Drug dealers may also put fentanyl in cocaine to get users addicted and coming back for more. Cocaine and fentanyl are both highly addictive substances that can lead to physical dependence and psychological addiction. Dealers who get their customers addicted to these drugs can benefit from long-term ongoing business, along with higher profits.

Who’s at Risk for Cocaine Overdose?

Anyone who uses cocaine is at risk for an overdose, since any batch of cocaine may contain fentanyl. Even those who have been purchasing cocaine regularly from the same dealers face the risk for an overdose, since the mixing of fentanyl in cocaine may even take place at the trafficking level without the dealer’s knowledge. However, certain populations have been shown to be more affected by cocaine overdose than others.

Between 2012 and 2015, the rate of cocaine deaths among blacks and African-Americans mirrored the rate of opioid overdose deaths among whites — indicating that the black population may be at higher risk for cocaine overdose. A report from the Medical Examiner’s Office in Cuyahoga County, Ohio — a state that saw nearly a 31% increase in opioid overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016 — showed that the rate of fentanyl deaths among blacks increased 14-fold within three years. Most of these deaths were found to be caused by mixing cocaine with fentanyl.

College and university students are another population at heightened risk for cocaine overdose. Many students who misuse study drugs like Adderall to boost focus and concentration end up switching to cocaine to benefit from its more powerful effects, attainability, and lower cost. Unfortunately, college students who purchase cocaine are subject to cocaine overdose just like anyone else, since any given batch may be laced with fentanyl.

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Signs of Fentanyl-Laced Cocaine Overdose

Knowing what a fentanyl-laced cocaine overdose looks like can help you save a life and allow that person to experience another chance at becoming healthier and recovering from drug abuse. If someone you know is using cocaine and unreceptive to the idea of getting help, suggest that they use fentanyl test strips to make sure their cocaine isn’t laced with fentanyl. Fentanyl test strips cost about $1 each, and are a method of harm reduction that helps cocaine users screen drugs for fentanyl so they can avoid a cocaine overdose.

Here are common signs and symptoms that may indicate a fentanyl-laced cocaine overdose.

Irregular Heart Rate

Cocaine and fentanyl can each cause irregular heart rate due to the way these drugs affect blood pressure and the cardiovascular system. An irregular heart rate can feel like a fluttering sensation in the chest, accompanied by dizziness and shortness of breath. Irregular heart rate can lead to a heart attack, and is a common sign of fentanyl and/or cocaine overdose.

Slowed or Stopped Breathing

Fentanyl slows down breathing to produce extreme relaxation, and may stop breathing altogether when used in high amounts. If you’re spending time with someone who appears to be sleeping or unconscious after using cocaine, confirm whether they’re still breathing. Cocaine is a stimulant that increases energy, and shouldn’t make people sleepy. A person who has used fentanyl-laced cocaine may experience slowed or stopped breathing after the effects of cocaine have worn off, and the effects of fentanyl take over.

Tremors and Floppy Limbs

Tremors and muscle twitches are common signs of cocaine overdose due to the way this drug stimulates and excites the central nervous system. Floppy limbs, on the other hand, are a common sign of fentanyl overdose due to the way opioids depress the nervous system. Look for signs of tremors, muscle twitches, teeth grinding, and floppy limbs to determine whether an overdose may be happening.

Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are common signs of drug and alcohol toxicity. Vomiting is the body’s reaction to high amounts of toxins and poisons such as that found in many drugs, especially fentanyl. Synthetic fentanyl is toxic because the drug is comprised of man-made chemicals and ingredients designed to bind to opioid receptors more tightly than most other opioid drugs. This is what makes fentanyl so deadly, and why single doses of opioid overdose reversal drugs like naloxone often cannot reverse a fentanyl overdose.

Gurgling and Choking Sounds

Gurgling, choking, and snoring sounds often indicate a person’s airway may be partially blocked due to the presence of vomit or respiratory depression. If you’re with someone who has used cocaine and they’re making gurgling and choking sounds while asleep or unconscious, it’s possible they may be suffering a fentanyl-laced cocaine overdose.

What to Do If You Experience or Witness an Overdose

If you think you’re about to experience or witness a fentanyl-laced cocaine overdose, tell someone right away and call 911 or emergency services. Inform dispatch that a cocaine or fentanyl overdose is happening so medical responders can arrive with multiple doses of naloxone and be prepared to administer the right treatments. For instance, if cocaine is primarily responsible for triggering the overdose, the medical team can bring cool towels and blankets to prevent overheating and hyperthermia.

Here are next steps to take after contacting emergency services:

  • Loosen any tight clothing on the overdose victim such as belts or ties.
  • Clear away any sharp and potentially dangerous objects near the victim, since seizures may happen with cocaine overdose.
  • Place the overdose victim into recovery position to help keep airways clear and prevent choking on vomit.
  • Coach the overdose victim on continuing to breathe, since irregular heart rate and respiratory depression are common with fentanyl and cocaine overdose.
  • Perform CPR if the overdose victim has no pulse or has stopped breathing.
  • Stay by the person’s side and try keeping them awake and alert until medical services arrive.

Overdoses that are triggered by mixing or cutting fentanyl in cocaine can often be reversed using naloxone, which blocks opioid receptors and reverses the effects of opioids to revive victims. But since fentanyl is extremely potent, multiple doses of naloxone may be needed to keep victims alive. Make sure your friend or loved one can be revived from a fentanyl-cocaine overdose using naloxone by keeping doses on hand in your car or home, or by informing emergency medical services to bring several doses.

Getting Help for Cocaine Addiction

The best way to lower your risk for a deadly cocaine overdose is to seek professional treatment at a drug detox center, where you can safely overcome cocaine dependence and addiction. If you keep using cocaine, you’ll stay at high risk for an overdose since fentanyl is being linked to more drug overdoses every day. Some batches of cocaine may even contain an illegal elephant tranquilizer called carfentanil, which is 10,000 times the potency of morphine and 100 times the potency of fentanyl.

Cocaine addiction can be safely treated in full using drug detox and therapy. A medical cocaine detox allows you to recover from cocaine dependence under the 24/7 care of medical staff who may use medications and other therapies to relieve your withdrawal symptoms. After your recovery from cocaine dependence, you may receive therapy to help you overcome the underlying causes of your addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy, motivation enhancement, and 12-step support group therapy are just some therapies that can help you achieve a fuller, healthier addiction-free lifestyle.

Visit our drug detox directory to learn more about the services and therapies available at treatment centers in your city and state, or call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-483-2193(Who Answers?) to get help for your cocaine addiction. Our caring and understanding drug abuse counselors will answer all your questions about available treatments and help you find an accredited drug detox center.

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