Higdon: Fentanyl is the leading culprit in Kentucky overdose deaths

14th District State Senator

Saturday, July 2, 2022 — My friend and Senate colleague Dr. Ralph Alvarado joined a panel of guests a couple of weeks ago for an episode of “Kentucky Tonight,” which focused on the opioid epidemic. The informative discussion came on the heels of a new report from the Kentucky Office for Drug Control Policy showing a 14.5 percent increase in opioid deaths in 2021.

What makes the news more troubling is the prior year’s report that showed a 50 percent increase in deaths, primarily caused by the COVID-19 pandemic’s negative impact on the existing challenges we face.

There were more than 107,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2021; more than 2,000 were our family, friends and neighbors here in the commonwealth. We can blame many contributing factors to the scourge of addiction leading to the loss of life. However, what I want to inform you of today is what the “Kentucky Tonight” panel said has been identified as the cause of death in 72 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2021: fentanyl.


Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, it is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. Even non-drug users such as members of law enforcement and innocent young people are being harmed because of the drug’s potency.

Fentanyl is the number one cause of death in people ages 18-45 because it is finding its way into our communities. Frequently, drug users do not even realize they are encountering it. Because producing drugs using fentanyl creates a stronger high at a cheaper cost, drug dealers mix it with drugs they traffic.

This is a staggering reality but one we must confront as a society. Awareness is critical, so I hope you will take the time to share this information with others and emphasize the dangers of making bad choices to young people with such bright futures. This is ultimately a crisis that must be confronted by families, friends, churches and more.

Steps you can take in your personal life to mitigate dangers among teenagers are to make awareness of fentanyl more known to those you love and consider you a trusted voice. Make it a conversation, but being willing to listen is most important. Explain to youth the realities of the risks and how fentanyl is tasteless, odorless and too small to see. It can be anywhere, and there have even been cases where simply touching a fentanyl-laced item has led to a death.

Kentucky has taken many steps to address the opioid epidemic from a public policy perspective. This includes the hard work of the 2020 Substance Use Recovery Task Force, which included lawmakers and stakeholders who studied and discussed policy initiatives to help tackle the drug crisis.

Bills resulting from the task force’s work included recent legislation, some of which:
· Making addiction treatment less onerous by prohibiting insurers from requiring utilization review (Senate Bill 51, 2021).

· Studying the role mental health disorders play in addiction and getting those addicted who suffer from mental illness into recovery programs and back into the workforce (Senate Bill 90, 2022).

· Strengthening penalties against those who traffic fentanyl and derivatives of it (House Bill 215, 2022).

These are a few legislative efforts in addition to past efforts such as Casey’s Law, which allows families to petition the court to get their loved ones into treatment for their addiction. The bills just mentioned do not include the millions of dollars provided in each state budget to provide resources to combat addiction. Additionally, the Kentucky General Assembly established the Opioid Settlement Commission through House Bill 427. The commission is tasked with determining how to best put Kentucky’s $483 million share to use, which resulted from lawsuits against four companies accused of fueling the opioid crisis.

I want to mention another bill from the most recent legislative session: Senate Bill 56. That bill aims to save lives by making more widely available federally approved ‘opioid antagonist’ drugs. An opioid antagonist can reverse an overdose and first responders are using them to save lives.

We have to acknowledge the deadliness of fentanyl. Treatment and recovery are not possible once a life is lost, and given the potency of fentanyl, second chances are not likely for many who will encounter it.

I trust my fellow lawmakers will keep doing all they can to help curb the loss of life caused by addiction, but I pray communities will come together to face this because the government does not have a silver bullet. It’s also important to remember the federal government’s role and the many ways it has failed. Most notably, the war on drugs since the 1960s and the Food and Drug Administration not providing the degree of oversight of drugs they knew were being manufactured and prescribed.

The last decline in overdose deaths came in 2018, only after a decade of increasing deaths. I hope we can see another drop in 2022 and make significant progress in the decade ahead. But it will take an awakening to find once again the value in every human life, family structure and the role of faith. Our success will also be tied to economic realities and so much more.

I believe we have it in us as a state and nation to confront the tragedy of the drug epidemic effectively.


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