BILLINGS - On Fentanyl Awareness Day, experts spoke on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Billings about the epidemic the drug has created and how it can often hide in plain sight.
Most fentanyl that arrives in Billings or elsewhere in the country looks like most other prescription or over-the-counter pills, and that's where the danger lies.
"They’re pressed to look like a 30mg tablet of oxycodone, but there’s no oxycodone in them. All that’s in them is fentanyl, and a very small amount of fentanyl is all it takes to have a very powerful effect," said Dr. Robert Sherrick, chief medical officer of Community Medical Services, an addiction treatment facility with services in Montana.
The DEA describes fentanyl as the greatest threat to Americans today as it kills nearly 200 people every day. And it’s a drug that’s still relatively new.
"Starting about 2018 or 2019, we started seeing fentanyl and fentanyl is an opioid very much like oxycodone or heroin. It works at the same receptors in the brain. It is, however, far more potent," added Sherrick.
It's about 100 times more potent than morphine, and it's killing people between the ages of 18-45 at an alarming rate.
In Billings, the aftermath of fentanyl use is being felt firsthand.
"She decided to go after meth and that’s all it took and she’s dead. One time of using meth and she’s gone," said Sheri Boelter, CEO of New Day Ranch in Billings, after her niece died just two weeks ago because that meth was laced with fentanyl.
She said the drug pops up everywhere.
"We’ve actually seen some people that were purchasing marijuana on the street and then it was laced with fentanyl, and they become seriously addicted and they don’t understand why their whole lives are falling apart," added Boelter.
Reports of it being mixed with drugs like cocaine, heroin and meth make it even more likely to affect people that weren’t intending to use it. But Sherrick said due to the extreme high gained from the drug, many are bypassing things like heroin and going straight for fentanyl.
"Of our patients that come in for treatment, throughout Montana, including Billings, over 70% of them test positive for fentanyl," said Sherrick.
And it's a trend that has many worried that there's no end in sight.
"When you look at just how small of milligrams it takes to get to a high and then to die, is just so little. It’s just very frightening, it’s very scary. We’re losing too many people," Boelter said.