COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – While more Ohioans are dying from fentanyl-related drug overdoses than ever before, it represents a double-edged sword: It’s also used as a medically prescribed painkiller.

The powerful opioid – used in regulated medical settings and illicit street labs alike – can induce feelings of euphoria and pain relief. And it can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

Dr. Krisanna Deppen, program director of the addiction medicine fellowship at Grant Medical Center, said fentanyl is used by medical professionals to treat ill patients – like those diagnosed with cancer or recovering from a severe injury – because it combats pain by attaching to receptors in the brain.

“It goes to that receptor and turns it on so it blocks the signals of pain throughout the body,” Deppen said.

Fentanyl is the drug at the center of a 14-count murder trial for Dr. William Husel, who ordered it for patients when he was an ICU physician at the former Mount Carmel West hospital. Deppen was not asked to comment about the ongoing legal proceedings.

Because of fentanyl’s potency, Deppen said it’s often used in the medical arena if other painkillers like morphine or oxycontin aren’t effectively mitigating a patient’s pain.

Although fentanyl can be used interchangeably with other opioids, Deppen said it’s typically not the first painkiller a doctor will prescribe unless the patient is in severe pain.

While the opioid can produce positive effects in some patients, Deppen said it’s important to recognize the distinction between medically prescribed fentanyl and the opioid that’s illegally obtained on the street.

“Most of the fentanyl that’s being used on the street is not the same – it’s not prescribed,” Deppen said. “It’s usually made in clandestine labs or manufactured on the streets.”

Another “scary thing” about fentanyl, Deppen said, is that it’s often laced in other drugs, like cocaine or methamphetamines, unbeknownst to the buyer.

“It might be sold as part of a drug cocktail, so they may not even know they’re getting highly potent drugs,” she said.

Over the last eight to 10 years, Deppen said she’s noticed a transition among Ohioans seeking to buy opioids. After illicit pain medications were the popular opioid of choice, Ohioans moved on to heroin, she said.

Now, overdose deaths involving fentanyl – which she said can be easily transported due to its small yet lethal quantity – are skyrocketing throughout the state.

According to data from the Ohio Department of Health, more than 4,000 Ohioans died from fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2020, a 32% jump in deaths from 2019.

While the opioid accounted for just 4 percent of overdose deaths in Ohio in 2012, a record-breaking 81 percent of all overdose deaths in 2020 involved fentanyl, according to the department.

Although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that about 2 milligrams, or 2,000 micrograms, of fentanyl is considered to be lethal, Deppen said she’s hesitant to guess the amount at which fentanyl becomes fatal, as it largely depends on the person using it.

“For someone who uses opiates on a regular basis, they could use it a lot and be OK,” she said. “For people who don’t use it on a regular basis, just a small amount might be enough.”

Before ingesting illicit opioids, Deppen encourages people to test their drugs for fentanyl and have the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone, or Narcan, handy.

SafePoint, a program operated by Equitas Health, provides both fentanyl test strips and Narcan at no cost to the first 60 people who arrive at its facility each day.

Contact SafePoint at 614-460-1406 or NetCare Access, Franklin County’s 24-hour substance abuse crisis helpline, at 614-276-2273.