The Opioid Crisis

The opioid crisis continues to evolve. Between the late 90s and 2021, nearly 645,000 individuals lost their lives due to opioid-related overdoses, encompassing both prescription and narcotics. This surge in fatalities can be categorized into four distinct waves:  

  1. The initial wave, emerging in the 1990s, marked by heightened opioid prescriptions.
  1. The second wave, starting around 2010, characterized by a sharp rise in fatalities linked to heroin.
  1. The third wave, beginning three short years after (2013), with uptick in deaths attributed to synthetic opioids, particularly illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
  1. The fourth and current wave, characterized by fentanyl’s infiltration and combination with other drugs, such as heroin, counterfeit pills and cocaine.   

According to the World Health Organization, synthetic opioid death rates in the United States increased by 1040% between 2013 to 2019. The majority of preventable drug overdose deaths (78%) involve opioids, totaling 78,012 in 2022.   

Despite four decades of this crisis and hundreds of thousands of deaths, there’s still a lack of public awareness among opioid overdoses and fatalities – and even more so for other emerging drug threats.

Recent Survey Shows Critical Gaps in Awareness

In a recent survey conducted by Dynata and commissioned by 908 Devices, we determined awareness of emerging drug threats remains a critical issue. Despite efforts to disseminate information, a staggering 71% of respondents across the U.S. remain unaware of looming dangers such as nitazenes, captagon and dipentylone. 

Additionally concerning is the lack of recognition (61%) of xylazine, also known as ‘tranq’. Of those who were familiar with these substances, a significant portion gained knowledge through media outlets (24%) and social media platforms (22%). While 42% of respondents consider themselves somewhat informed about these issues, 15% feel inadequately informed and express a desire to learn more to protect themselves. Nearly half of respondents believe that educational resources provided by schools, health facilities or community centers are the most effective means of addressing the ongoing fentanyl crisis and opioid epidemic, in comparison to the 34% who thought stiffer sentencing for individuals who traffic, distribute, and sell fentanyl was warranted.  

Beyond the awareness of the drugs themselves, 77% of participants were unaware that xylazine, a sedative, does not respond to standard opioid overdose reversal treatments like Narcan or Naloxone, compared to 80% of respondents in our previous survey conducted March 2023.  

Strategies for Heightening Opioid Crisis Awareness and Engagement

In our recent  blog post around emerging drug threats, we outlined a few strategies for law enforcement personnel to stay informed of the latest illicit drugs on the streets, including training and education, health surveillance programs and community engagement. 

As indicated by survey respondents, implementing comprehensive educational programs through trusted community resources such as schools, healthcare settings, and community centers, would have the greatest impact. 

This tactic will directly address students, healthcare professionals and community members of all ages to raise awareness about the risks associated with opioid misuse, addiction and overdose. 

In tandem, public safety officials should consider launching multimedia campaigns using different mediums such as television, billboards and social media. Strong storytelling around the consequences for use, and resources available for prevention and treatment, will engage the public. Additionally, law enforcement’s ability to decode street language over social media––such as “Perk 30s,” short for m-30 pills, and “scripts,” aka Mexican Xanax––is critical in understanding the landscape and effectively communicating with the public.

Addressing Critical Knowledge Gaps

Understanding the complexities of the opioid crisis is crucial in combating its devastating effects. The evolution of this crisis, from the late 90s to present day, highlights the need for targeted interventions and heightened public awareness. Despite efforts to disseminate information, critical gaps in awareness persist, as revealed in our recent survey. 

The limited knowledge of emerging drug threats among respondents underscores the urgency for comprehensive educational programs and multimedia awareness campaigns. By implementing these strategies, we can collectively work to mitigate the impact of the opioid crisis and other emerging drug threats.