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10.22.2021

The Surge of Illicit Drug Use

As we head into the second winter of the pandemic, mental health professionals and law-enforcement officers are standing in the gap to assist Arkansans who are struggling with isolation, depression, and substance abuse.

Long before COVID-19, leaders in Arkansas recognized the need for increased mental-health assistance. The worldwide health crisis has made life harder for many Arkansans and confirmed this need. Thanks to the foresight of many, Arkansas’s basic infrastructure already was in place to offer aid and comfort amid the loss and other hardships that COVID has inflicted.

A surge in the availability of potent and cheap illicit drugs has worsened the negative effects of this pandemic as some have sought out drugs for relief from the past twenty months. A marked increase in the potency of fentanyl has fueled a fifty-five percent increase in the number of drug-overdose deaths in 2020 over 2019.

This trend alarms Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane, who has increased his warnings about the use of illicit drugs. Kirk says the illicit fentanyl comes to the United States from China and Mexico. The fentanyl is up to one-hundred times more potent than heroin.

It’s popular because it is easy to find and inexpensive. But it is as lethal as it is cheap. A packet the size of one serving of artificial sweetener will hold a gram of fentanyl. That’s enough to kill five-hundred people. 

Colonel Bill Bryant, head of the Arkansas State Police, tells me that over the past four years, the Criminal Interdiction Unit has confiscated seventy pounds of fentanyl in Arkansas. That’s more than thirty-thousand grams, enough to kill fifteen million people.

Kermit Channel, head of the Arkansas State Crime Lab, said that the number of fatal fentanyl overdoses has increased from three in 2014 to 175 last year. The state is on a pace to see 276 fatal overdoses this year.

Fentanyl is especially dangerous because it’s impossible to know the dose or potency you are consuming. The pills are made to look like oxycontin or other opioids, but they are laced with fentanyl. Consuming fentanyl from a street dealer is like playing Russian roulette with drugs.

Jarad Harper, assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Arkansas, says that dealers are selling fentanyl over the dark web, which makes it easier to buy. A teenager can buy fentanyl on the dark web almost as easily he buys earbuds online.

I can’t overstate the danger of these illicit drugs to our state. And I can’t say this too often: Hundreds of good people are trained and ready to help those who are struggling.

Arkansas Connect is a partnership between the state and UAMS. The initiative provides care to anyone who is dealing with substance use disorders, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. AR-Connect offers assistance by telephone and tele-health around the clock seven days a week. The phone numbers are 501-526-3563 or 800-482-9921.

Saturday is the fall Drug Take-Back day. We have placed 270 take-back boxes around the state. We have collected more than 221 tons of out-of-date and unused medicine since we started the initiative. Saturday also is the first day of the DEA’s and FBI’s Red Ribbon Week, the annual program for schools designed to educate students about the danger of abusing drugs of any sort.

My message is that regardless of the difficulties you face, plenty of people are willing to help. Please ask.

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