North America continues to face an opioid overdose epidemic, driven by persistent increases in illicit fentanyls and fluctuations in potency leading to uncertainty for consumers. This qualitative study was conducted to better understand how people who inject drugs (PWID) came to recognize fentanyl as a growing adulterant of heroin and the subsequent sensory discernment strategies they employed to continue injecting. Our main objective was to investigate how observations and knowledge are combined as homegrown techniques for detecting fentanyl and minimizing risk. Secondary objectives were to examine the impact of growing fentanyl adulteration on individual drug use behavior.
Between April and May 2019, 28 PWID (18 men, 10 women; average age = 38.43 years, SD = 9.26) were purposely recruited from a needle services program in Greensboro, North Carolina. Study participants were interviewed in-person using a qualitative, semi-structured instrument. Interviews were analyzed with a general inductive approach using NVivo12.
Participants described methods for detecting fentanyl in illicit opioids. Sudden increases in the potency of the ‘rush’ and sharp decreases in the length of the ‘high’ were chief indicators along with changes in drug color and texture. Heavy sedation was associated with fentanyl use and histamine-releasing effects characterized as ‘pins and needles’ were ascribed to injecting fentanyl as a component of the rush. Fentanyl's short high helped explain higher injection frequency and heavy sedation was the leading reason for co-using fentanyl with cocaine/crack or methamphetamine.
PWID have the capacity to recognize changes to the illicit opioid supply. Study participants navigated unpredictable fluctuations in the illicit opioid market by employing homegrown discernment techniques, modifying drug use behavior, and co-using non-opioid drugs. Researchers and policymakers should involve PWID as subject matter experts to help modernize harm reduction for the fentanyl age with practical strategies to boost resiliency and save lives.
Consuming illicit opioids during a drug overdose epidemic
Illicit fentanyls, drug discernment, and the radical transformation of the illicit opioid market