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‘Fentanyl today is everywhere,’ a Gainesville substance abuse specialist says

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Overdose rates were on the rise before the COVID pandemic, but last year's lockdowns exacerbated the issue.

When news of a nationwide lockdown for COVID hit the airwaves in March 2020, substance abuse specialist Burton Burt said he was certain his patients would struggle. He was right.

“It became very apparent to us early on that isolation was going to be a big problem for a lot of our patients,” Burt said. “They were unable to get to meetings they regularly attended. Any additional support they had kind of disappeared on them overnight.”

Burt works at Recovery Awareness in Gainesville, where he and his colleagues do outpatient treatment for drug addiction. Burt said they saw a 30 to 40 percent relapse rate during the quarantine period. The relapses he saw were sometimes a result of a patient’s typical drug of choice; however, a substance Burt saw significantly more often during the pandemic was fentanyl.

“Fentanyl today is everywhere,” Burt said. “A couple years ago, I would’ve laughed if you told me people were lacing marijuana with fentanyl. Today, I know that to be a fact.”

Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic drug that is like morphine, only it’s 50 to 100 times more potent, Burt said. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it’s the leading cause of overdose in America.

Overdose rates were on the rise before the pandemic, but the COVID lockdowns exasperated the issue. Over 93,000 overdose deaths were reported in 2020 – 20,000 more than in 2019, which had previously been a record high, according to The Commonwealth Fund.

Out of these 93,000 overdose deaths, synthetic opioids, like codeine, fentanyl, methadone, and morphine, were involved in 60% of them.

“When the lockdown was initiated during the pandemic in early 2020, an unprecedented surge of opioid deaths occurred,” mental health counselor Mimi Culpepper said. “Individuals struggled with coping with the loneliness stemming from isolation, mental health issues, and substance abuse.”

According to NIDA, Fentanyl is seen as a cheap alternative to drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin and is easy for dealers to slip it into their products to increase their profits. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration says drug trafficking organizations infuse fentanyl into products and sell it in kilograms. For a substantially lower price, people can experience a high 50 times more potent than they would have experienced with a drug like morphine.

One kilogram of fentanyl, according to the DEA, can kill over 500,000 people.

“People put [fentanyl] in their marijuana, their cocaine, their methamphetamine, heroin,” Burt said. “It is just everywhere.”

To make matters worse, during the pandemic, many drug users’ trusted dealers disappeared off the streets due to the lockdown, leaving them to turn to riskier dealers looking to make a profit.

“Hypothetically speaking, these people can buy $1,000 worth of heroin, cut it with $100 worth of fentanyl and double, or triple, their profits in the process,” Burt said, shaking his head. “So, it’s much more potent.”

Burt, who was once a drug addict himself, said he had to hit rock bottom to wake up and ask for help. The case is true for many people in America. Others view the path a loved one took as a cautionary tale.

Joe Goldner, an ambassador for the addiction nonprofit organization Shatterproof, said he knows the battle of addiction all too well. Goldner, who is four years sober from alcohol, grew up with an alcoholic father who eventually passed away from a heart attack at 58 years old, and a brother who also struggles with alcoholism.

More recently, Goldner has been fighting to save a woman he loves who has had issues with opioid addiction as well as usage of synthetic opioids, like fentanyl. The special-needs woman, who he only referred to as Jenny, got involved with the wrong people who used her special-needs to their advantage. During the lockdown period, Jenny spiraled back into addiction.

“What she needed was to go into a full recovery center in a close environment,” Goldner said. “Somewhere where they could work with her hand-in-hand, one-on-one. To fight the demons, to see who she really is, and to go out to be the best she is… once-a-week, online therapy sessions is not recovery.”

Eighty-five percent of clinician members are using Telehealth to conduct sessions following the pandemic according to TIME Magazine. Despite hopes to offer in-person groups again, many counselors have been forced to think creatively in order to check on recovering patients while variants of COVID-19 make a long-awaited return to normalcy impossible.

While it is better than nothing, according to Goldner, face-to-face sessions are invaluable. A person's body language and smell are lost with virtual sessions.

“Addicts are liars,” he said. “The addiction is controlling you. Anything that is coming out of your mouth, like faking your recovery, is a lie; it’s not you.”

Burt and Goldner are two examples that recovery is challenging, but not impossible. Both were addicts, and both turned their lives around.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national helpline: 1-800-622-HELP (4357).