Fentanyl use in Washington continues rise to ‘stunning’ levels, warns UW survey

SEATTLE — A recent survey from researchers at the University of Washington found that fentanyl use has skyrocketed to “stunning” levels across the state in 2021.

The study was conducted by the UW’s Addiction, Drug & Alcohol Institute (ADAI), surveying 955 people at syringe-service programs spanning 20 counties. In 2019, 18% of respondents said they had used fentanyl within the prior three months. The 2021 iteration of the study saw that number rise to 42%, raising concerns over the proliferation of the oft-fatal substance. In Seattle alone, police seized an estimated 650,000 fentanyl pills last year, roughly 10 times what they seized in 2020.

“I’ve been doing drug-trends research for 20 years, and fentanyl’s growth is the biggest, fastest shift we’ve ever seen — and also the most lethal,” ADAI Principal Research Scientist Dr. Caleb Banta-Green said in a release announcing the results of the survey.

Of the 42% who had reported using fentanyl over a three-month period, two-thirds of them clarified that they had knowingly consumed the drug, marking a shift from past years where most had not been aware that they had ingested it. Fentanyl has been a leading cause of overdoses in Washington since 2020, as a substance that can be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

The added concern is that the method of consumption has shifted from injection to smoking.

“This matters because the majority of people dying now from overdoses are smoking drugs, yet almost all of our harm-reduction services have been aimed at people who inject drugs,” Banta-Green explained. “So we need to figure out how to recast harm-reduction programs to engage with people who smoke drugs.”

But the silver-lining, Banta-Green adds, is that “smoking means (users) will inject less often,” while producing less syringe waste in communities.

In King County, fentanyl-related overdose deaths have been particularly prevalent in recent years, evidenced by a 118% jump between 2011 and 2021. Groups like ADAI have worked to combat that rise through a harm reduction approach, distributing thousands of overdose-reversing naloxone kits, and promoting addiction treatment with medications like buprenorphine and methadone.