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editorial
Editorials
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Fentanyl, a global danger

After wreaking havoc in the United States, consumption of the drug now threatens to spread globally

A man smokes fentanyl on the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in December 2021.
A man smokes fentanyl on the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in December 2021.Europa Press/Contacto/Roberto E. Rosales

The trafficking and consumption of fentanyl has become a major health problem in the United States; it has given new wings to international drug trafficking —especially to the powerful Mexican cartels —, created unprecedented international tensions and now threatens to spread on a scale affecting Europe. This is a scenario in which European authorities — at the EU and national level — still have room to prevent. Without being alarmist, but aware of the seriousness of the threat.

Fentanyl is a drug 50 times more powerful than heroin. Developed in the field of anesthesiology, it has jumped from operating rooms to the streets and, once distributed in its illegal form, has swelled the so-called opiate epidemic, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. In the United States alone, according to official data, 91,799 people died in 2020 from overdoses of these substances. In 2021 the figure rose to 106,699 and in 2022 these drugs were responsible for at least two thirds of the 110,000 deaths recorded from this cause. It is considered the worst health crisis in recent history, only on a par with AIDS in the 1980s and the Covid-19 pandemic.

An especially outrageous aspect of this crisis is that its introduction into regular consumer habits was not done through clandestine drug dealing on the streets, but in medical offices, where fentanyl was prescribed by tens of thousands of doctors for the treatment of non-oncological chronic pain. Tens of thousands of people sued the manufacturer for manifest deception regarding the dependency created by the drug — OxyContin — whose economic benefits made the laboratory, Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical giant that has become the target of massive legal action. In this way, international drug trafficking was able to land in a pre-existing market with much more powerful and dangerous doses. The Mexican cartels have especially benefited from this new route, which has led to friction between Mexico and China — the world’s main supplier of the substances used to manufacture the drug — and with the United States, where the most extremist voices are demanding direct military intervention against drug trafficking. For its part, the United States has decreed sanctions against 17 Chinese individuals and companies that it accuses of profiting from this illegal trafficking. Last July, Washington called on 84 countries to establish a “global alliance” against this substance.

The consumption of fentanyl in Europe has not reached such dramatic dimensions, but its lethality, its addictive power and the relative ease of transportation make it necessary to take the relevant measures on the legal, police and information fronts to prevent the Old Continent from becoming the new backdrop for this scourge.

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