(Madison, Wis.) – Wisconsin is in the middle of an epidemic of drug overdose deaths driven largely by illegal fentanyl. This is now the number one killer of Wisconsin residents ages 25 to 54. According to a new study from Forward Analytics, “Silent Killer,” overdose deaths associated with synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) increased more than 1,000% from 2015 through 2021, claiming more than 4,300 Wisconsin lives.

Fentanyl is an opioid that is used by doctors to treat severe pain. However, illicit forms of the drug are now being produced and distributed in liquid, gel, and powder form. Illicit fentanyl is also being put into pills that look like OxyContin, Percocet, or Adderall pills, and cut into other illegal drugs. The drug is extremely powerful and undetectable by taste, smell, or sight, with as little as two grams being deadly.

The new study highlights several demographic groups that have been the most affected. In 2021, the rate of fentanyl deaths among Black and American Indian residents was nearly three times greater than the rate for White residents. Mortality rates for males was 2.6 times greater than for females. Finally, as mentioned above, this epidemic has hit those 25 to 34 years old particularly hard.

Preliminary figures from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that fentanyl deaths in Wisconsin may have plateaued, at least temporarily. CDC figures show 2022 deaths at about 1,300, roughly the same number as in 2021.

“While promising, this fight is far from over,” said Forward Analytics Director Dale Knapp, citing figures from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. That agency seized more than 50.6 million fentanyl laced pills nationwide in 2022, with 60% of those tested containing a lethal dose. The agency also seized 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder. These seizures represented more than 379 million potentially deadly doses of fentanyl, a number that is greater than the population of the U.S. 

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