A billboard on a main highway in rural Maryland tallies the residents who have overdosed on prescription painkillers, heroin and other illicit opioids this year: 96 overdoses, 15 of them fatal. What the sign doesn’t say is that a large and growing number of the deaths are the result of fentanyl, a fast-acting drug that is 50 times stronger than heroin and can kill users within seconds, Stateline reports. Cheap and easy to produce, it is used by drug dealers to intensify the effects of heroin and other drugs, often without the users’ knowledge. States, counties and cities are responding to the crisis by doing more of what they already were doing: stockpiling the overdose reversal drug naloxone, funding more drug treatment, and ramping up police surveillance of drug trafficking.
In addition, a handful of states are stiffening penalties for selling the lethal drug. Even in hard hit states that have been battling fentanyl for more than three years, the death toll continues to spike. Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Rhode Island were among the states hit hard by fentanyl as early as 2013. All opioids killed more than 33,000 people in 2015. Early death reports from states indicate that national data, to be released in January, will show an even steeper rise in deaths in 2016, said Matthew Gladden, an opioid investigator at the Centers for Disease Control. The sharpest spike is in Maryland. “The trends there are extremely disturbing,” he said. Other emerging hotspots include Florida, New York City and Virginia.