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The opioid crisis ravaging America is claiming record numbers of lives

Warning: This article contains images which some viewers may find distressing

The opioid crisis is unlike any drug epidemic America has ever known. It’s claiming lives at an almost unimaginable rate.

But to get an idea of why these drugs are taking such a toll, you have to look at the people who are dying.

This is not just the curse of the stereotypical addict.

Many of those admitted to the country’s fast swelling mortuaries were middle class professionals whose first fix was dealt to them by a doctor.

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, pharmaceutical firms began a major lobbying exercise, persuading doctors to prescribe their synthetic forms of heroin for pain relief.

A drug believed to be Carfentanil is tested in a laboratory. Credit: ITV News

Soon GPs across the country were handing out powerful prescriptions for relatively minor ailments.

The drugs worked, but they proved highly addictive and when patients’ prescriptions ran out, many took to the streets to feed what had fast become a habit.

That’s where the problem really starts. In pill form, this medication could be controlled, but by going to “street chemists” for their fix, people were taking a huge risk.

They'd buy the drugs, illegally imported from China, ready mixed with harmless powders. Just a few grains of opioid in each capsule, which they'd either snort, smoke or inject.

Around two million Americans are estimated to be hooked on opioid painkillers. Credit: AP

Most of the powders are phenomenally potent. One, Carfentanil, is said to be 10,000 times stronger than heroin.

Originally created as an elephant tranquiliser, a couple of grains could be enough to kill.

Others are less powerful but still deadly, and here’s the real issue - most addicts have no idea which kind of opioid they’re taking.

Yet across America people are seeking out dealers and buying this stuff for as little as two dollars per fix.

Ian Blackburn is addicted to synthetic opioid painkiller Fentanyl. Credit: ITV News

Some have reached a truly hopeless stage.

Ian Blackburn, a long-time addict, told me he’s never known anything like it. He’s felt in control of his drug habit in the past. Not any more.

“Three hits, that’s all it takes”, he told me: "You take this stuff three times and it’s forever”.

Some mortuaries are struggling to cope with the rising numbers of deaths.

He explained how he doesn’t get a buzz from the drug any more, he simply takes it to feel normal, to take the pain of withdrawal away. Without it, his legs start to cramp, his stomach wrenches and he loses control of his functions.

“Every couple of hours you need a hit”, he says “no ifs ands or buts, you’re going to find it and you’re going to get money to get it, no matter what”.