Drug overdoses are now the number one cause of death for Americans under the age of 50 due to the increased usage of opioids. One of the primary reasons for the steep increases in overdoses is the spread of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 50-100 times more potent than morphine.
In New York City, 1,374 people died from overdoses last year, up more than 400 from 2015. One neighborhood hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic is the South Bronx.
"This is probably the poorest community in the 50 states," says Nelson Gonzalez of Saint Anne's Corner of Harm Reduction. "And those are the easiest people to convince that they need something to make them feel better."
St. Anne’s Corner for Harm Reduction is a needle exchange that provides a variety of services for the large population of drug users in the South Bronx. “Here in the South Bronx last year there were 617 fatal overdoses,” Gonzalez says. “I don’t know that the heroin problem in the Bronx, or anywhere in the 5 boroughs is worse than it has been but due to the introduction of fentanyl we’ve seen a lot more overdoses.”
In late October, police arrested seven dealers in the Bronx selling a concoction of heroin and fentanyl called “Pray for Death.” Just 3 milligrams of fentanyl is considered a potentially lethal dose. In September, a drug bust in Queens, New York seized 270 pounds of fentanyl, enough to kill 32 million people.
Fentanyl was linked to more than 20,000 deaths across the United States in 2016. A February report from the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission found that mass quantities of the synthetic opioid are being produced in China under limited regulation.
Now, St. Annes Corner is using an innovative tool to ensure that users are aware of the risks they are taking. Gonzalez and his team pass out fentanyl test strips and teach opioid users to test their drugs before injecting. “What they were injecting before is not what they’re injecting any more,” Gonzalez says. “And so hopefully it will reduce their usage.”
Opioid addicts like a man who goes by the name "Outlaw," are grateful that St. Anne’s Corner is helping users become more aware of what they are putting in their bodies. “That fentanyl is a problem,” Outlaw says. “You feel euphoria, it’s like a mellow feeling, it’s a relaxed feeling, it feels wonderful. But you overdose off of it. You don’t even realize your blacking out until you wake up in the hospital, if you’re lucky.”
But for Outlaw and many others, traces of fentanyl are not enough to stop them. “Being that I’m a real dope fiend and I like for every kind of good dope, even if it has fentanyl in it I’m still going to bang it,” Outlaw says. “So I shoot half that way I don’t have to worry about overdosing.”