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Viral Cop “Overdoses” Fuel Fentanyl Misinformation

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Ranson Thomas is an RN, MSN in nursing education.

Fentanyl has been in use by physicians for the treatment of pain since the 1960s, but over the last few years news stories related to fentanyl have been everywhere. From contributing to record numbers of overdose deaths, to a number of police officers having what appear to be near fatal episodes when in contact with the drug, there’s a lot of fear and paranoia regarding fentanyl and the danger it poses. Is this fear justified, and what’s behind the sudden explosion in the illicit use of fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid analgesic, frequently prescribed to patients by physicians to treat pain, and it’s typically administered via oral tablets, patches, or injections. Fentanyl is a powerful pain reliever, used for the long term management of chronic pain, post-surgical pain, labor pain in pregnant women, and management of cancer pain. While it’s sensationalized as “50-100 times stronger than morphine”, fentanyl is prescribed in much smaller doses.

Perhaps the most sensational examples of the harm fentanyl can cause are the stories of police officers nearly dying from fentanyl exposure. These stories have generated millions of reactions on social media since as early as 2015, but more viral instances continue to show up, like that posted by a San Diego sheriff in 2021. In truth, police officers face no harm at all from direct contact with fentanyl. Physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers come into the same kind of contact with fentanyl on a daily basis, without adverse reactions

“It’s extremely unlikely that law enforcement officials or other first responders will experience an overdose after brief, unintentional exposure while caring for individuals who used opioids,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a physician and medical analyst for CNN. Wen explained that opioids are not absorbed well through the skin except through prolonged contact, and are not aerosolized outside extreme circumstances, meaning it’s not possible to quickly overdose from breathing it. Moreover, experts have pointed out that symptoms that these “viral overdoses” display don’t have the hallmarks of opioid poisoning, and closer resemble panic attacks. To date, there has not been a single confirmed case of a police officer having a fentanyl overdose from accidental exposure.

Despite this, small studies indicate that the overwhelming majority of police officers and leaders believe that touching or breathing fentanyl is fatal – along with potentially untold amounts of regular working people who are in contact with opioid users on a day-to-day basis.

It’s no big shock why this misinformation tends to stick. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) itself published in 2016 a training video that spreads these exact falsehoods. “[J]ust touching fentanyl or accidentally inhaling the substance… can result in absorption through the skin and that is one of the biggest dangers with fentanyl. The onset of adverse health effects, such as disorientation, coughing, sedation, respiratory distress or cardiac arrest is very rapid and profound, usually occurring within minutes of exposure,” the video claimed. 

The DEA has since removed this video from their website, but it was live as recently as March 2021.

Who Is Fentanyl Endangering?

While police accounts of fentanyl overdoses are complete fabrications, fentanyl overdoses and deaths are possible and in fact common. According to the CDC, in 2021 drug overdose deaths surpassed 100,000 in the U.S., with deaths from opioid overdoses specifically increasing by almost 50% from the previous year.

The reality is, drug overdoses and especially opioid overdoses are extremely dangerous, but not to people who might come into casual contact with the drug through their work or in their community. The people actually suffering and at risk from fentanyl overdoses are the individuals who have become addicted to opioids as part of a nationwide opioid epidemic that has overwhelmingly victimized working-class people, and which was manufactured by giant pharmaceutical companies which lied to and deceived the public in the name of expanding their own profits. 

For years, opioid manufacturers lied about the addictive effects of opioid narcotics like fentanyl to healthcare providers and to the public. This was so that the drugs would be prescribed more often, increasing their profits, while also attempting to shield themselves from the fallout once people became addicted. Companies like Purdue Pharma made billions of dollars over the years from selling drugs like Oxycontin, another opioid narcotic, and lying about the evidence they had regarding its addictive nature.

Even though big pharma companies push narcotics on Americans, why have so many people even needed pain medicine to begin with? One key factor is the toll which work in the U.S. puts on the bodies and minds of average people. The state with the highest rate of overdose deaths in the U.S. is West Virginia, and the DEA acknowledges that one of the primary reasons for this is the high concentration of blue collar industrial jobs in the state which have high rates of workplace injury which can leave people in chronic pain and injury even after their immediate injury has healed.

It’s not just West Virginia; in 2021 Amazon had a total of 38,300 workplace injuries throughout its U.S. facilities, twice the rate of injury of its closest competitors. Companies like Amazon eschew workplace safety and paid time off so they can exploit their workers and their bodies at such a brutal pace that the average Amazon warehouse worker only stays in the position for eight months!

The billionaires and politicians want to paint the opioid crisis as an individual moral failing on the part of those who are addicted, rather than placing the blame where it belongs: on big pharma and for-profit health care. As a result, false stories like those of police officers experiencing “overdoses” in the field are exploited and given credibility because it gives the capitalist class and politicians in both parties the cover they need for increasing funding to police departments and a return to tough on crime rhetoric.

These stories also help hide the real social roots of the problem and generate some support for more aggressive and heavy-handed police enforcement by portraying opioid addicts as a violent, dangerous, criminal element of society rather than what they really are: victims who have been failed by the for-profit health care industry, and by their employers who were happy to sacrifice their bodies in the name of short term profit.

Fighting The Root Cause Of Addiction

To really address the dangers that fentanyl and other opioids pose to society, socialists would attack the root cause. We need to fight for higher wages, better working conditions, and unions at every workplace, especially those at places like Amazon where workers face extraordinary levels of physical exploitation. Safer workplaces mean less injury and better wages, and access to healthcare means workers getting appropriately treated for their injuries and having adequate time off to heal when they do, not having to rely on quick fixes which put them back to work and put them at greater risk for lifelong chronic injuries.

The most important step would be to end for-profit health care. Medicare For All is the absolute minimum that workers in the U.S. should expect, but beyond that, we need to take private pharmaceutical companies like those that lied and profited off the opioid epidemic under democratic workers’ control. This would mean that health care companies wouldn’t be out to profit off the illness of people but would instead be geared towards actually curing and healing the sick and injured, while also prioritizing treatment for those who are still addicted to opioids and other drugs.

This would also mean increased production and distribution of drugs like naloxone – a drug used to treat narcotic overdose – as well as mental health therapists trained and made available to addicts, and more treatment centers geared towards keeping people safe while they are addicted while also working to help them break out of addiction.

The opioid epidemic is rooted in the capitalist system and the greed of the billionaires who run it. It would be utopian and unrealistic to say that in a socialist society problems like addiction would never occur. But in a socialist society, addiction and other health problems would be treated with the goal of actually healing and preventing further injury. Fentanyl and other opioids are dangerous, but not in the way typically presented by the media – and that danger was created by the billionaires who run our health care industry and the politicians who protect and fund paramilitary policing, not the unfortunate individuals who have been sacrificed to addiction in the name of corporate profits.

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