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Washington sees ‘stunning’ increase in fentanyl use, survey reveals

A recent survey gives more insight into how much fentanyl use has grown among drug users in Washington state.

SEATTLE — A recent survey from the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drugs and Alcohol Institute (ADAI) revealed a stark increase in the intentional use of the deadly opioid fentanyl across the state.

The biennial survey involved nearly 1,000 people using syringe-service program sites who were asked a series of questions in the fall.

Last year’s results revealed that the use of fentanyl increased 18% since 2019, with 42% of respondents saying they had used the illicit drug in the previous three months. Two-thirds of these respondents said they had used the drug knowingly, which the lead researcher with the institute said is a significant change from several years ago when most fentanyl use was unintentional.

“I've been doing drug-trends research for 20 years, and fentanyl’s growth is the biggest, fastest shift we've ever seen, and also the most lethal,” said Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, the principal research scientist with the ADAI.

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Banta-Green describes the respondents to the survey as “a diverse group of people who use drugs for an array of reasons, with a range of severity,” adding that the majority of those using fentanyl today are smoking it.

“This matters because the majority of people dying now from overdoses are smoking drugs. Yet almost all of our harm-reduction services have been aimed at people who inject drugs,” he said. “So, we need to figure out how to recast harm-reduction programs to engage with people who smoke drugs.”

Meanwhile, fentanyl, which took over from methamphetamine in 2020 as the drug most associated with overdoses in Washington state, is being linked to the increase in crime across the Puget Sound region.

Last week, Special Agent Frank Tarentino III, who leads the Seattle Field Division for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said drugs are fueling gun violence in the city.

This week, Eastside Fire & Rescue discussed a new pilot program in partnership with Public Health — Seattle & King County (PHSKC) that allows medics to provide Naloxone Leave-Behind Kits after responding to overdoses. The kits provide two doses of the overdose antidote and allow patients the chance to get out of respiratory arrest and seek medical attention.

PHSKC is also promoting an online tool that can help those addicted to opioids find medications that can reduce overdose risk as well as treat withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Meanwhile, Banta-Green also pointed out that the survey results do not illustrate how many individuals using the syringe-service program have stopped using drugs and are undergoing recovery.

“Some people go back and forth between being in treatment and using drugs; it's fluid and dynamic. Providing medication at syringe-exchange sites has been incredibly fruitful. We've gotten a lot of people stabilized on treatment medications and greatly improved people’s access to naloxone,” he said.


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