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Don’t Die for the High: Fentanyl Kills


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid often prescribed to help with severe pain such as during surgical recovery. While it can be very helpful to those who need it, when used outside of the context of recovery, fentanyl can lead to negative consequences to an Airman’s health and career.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states fentanyl works by binding to the body’s opioid receptors, which are found in the areas of the brain that control pain and emotion. What’s different is its strength. Fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, which can lead to diminishing sensitivity and increased tolerance, which can lead to creating the feeling of needing more, or addiction.

“Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused by taking it in a different way or in a larger quantity than prescribed, or taken without a doctor’s prescription,” said Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, 21st Medical Support Squadron diagnostics and therapeutics flight commander. “Regular use, even when prescribed by a doctor, can lead to dependence and, when misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to addiction, overdose incidents and deaths.”

Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are now the most common drugs in drug overdose deaths in the United States. According to the El Paso County Coroner’s report, opioids claimed 78 out of the total 133 drug-related deaths in El Paso County in 2018. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that fentanyl may be made into pills that look like other prescription opioids, as well as mixed into other drugs. NIDA reports that fentanyl has been found in heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. Additionally, the Drug Enforcement Administration has seized “counterfeit” prescription drugs like oxycodone or alprazolam (the generic version of Xanax) containing fentanyl.

Due to the increasing relevance of the drug, the Department of Defense added fentanyl and it’s metabolite, norfentanyl to all service Drug Demand Reduction Program drug tests.

“Fentanyl and its metabolite, norfentanyl, have garnered national attention lately because of fentanyl’s growing popularity and potential lethality,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Dozier, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System Special Forensic Toxicology Drug Testing Laboratory chief. “This, combined with the emergence of fentanyl and norfentanyl in SFTDTL’s DoD surveillance testing, led the Office of Drug Demand Reduction to petition for fentanyl’s addition to the standard DDRP drug testing panel.”

While a drug addiction has a negative impact on anyone it effects, it has extra connotations for uniformed service members.

“Wrongful use of controlled substances (to include opioids and opioid derivatives – of which fentanyl is one) is prohibited by Article 112a of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” said Maj. James Ferrell, 21st Space Wing judge advocate.” The offense of wrongful use of a controlled substance is punishable by up to five years in confinement and a Dishonorable Discharge.”

Anyone experiencing an addiction can contact the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Prevention Program at 719-556-7804.

Additional reporting by Griffin Swartzell