Understanding intentionality of fentanyl use and drug overdose risk: Findings from a mixed methods study of people who inject drugs in New York City

Courtney McKnight, Chenziheng Allen Weng, Marley Reynoso, Sarah Kimball, Lily M. Thompson, Don Des Jarlais

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: As the proportion of drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl continues to increase in the US, monitoring exposure to and possible changes in intention to use fentanyl among people who use drugs (PWUD) is of great public health importance. This mixed methods study examines intentionality of fentanyl use among persons who inject drugs (PWID) in New York City during a period of unprecedently high rates of drug overdose mortality. Methods: Between October 2021 and December 2022, N = 313 PWID were enrolled in a cross-sectional study that included a survey and urine toxicology screening. A subset of N = 162 PWID also participated in an in-depth interview (IDI) examining drug use patterns, including fentanyl use and experiences with drug overdose. Results: 83% of PWID were urine-toxicology positive for fentanyl, though only 18% reported recent intentional fentanyl use. Intentionality of fentanyl use was associated with being younger, white, increased drug use frequency, recent overdose (OD), recent stimulant use, among other characteristics. Qualitative findings suggest PWID tolerance to fentanyl may be increasing, which could result in an increased preference for fentanyl. Concern about overdose was common with nearly all PWID using overdose prevention strategies to avoid it. Conclusion: The findings from this study demonstrate a high prevalence of fentanyl use among PWID in NYC, despite an expressed preference for heroin. Our results suggest that the pervasiveness of fentanyl may be increasing fentanyl use and tolerance, which may contribute to an increased risk for drug overdose. Expanding access to existing evidence-based interventions such as naloxone and medications for opioid use disorder is necessary to reduce overdose mortality. Further, exploring the implementation of additional novel strategies to reduce the risk of drug overdose should be considered, including other forms of opioid maintenance treatment and expansion and government support for overdose prevention centers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104063
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
StatePublished - Aug 2023


  • Drug overdose
  • Fentanyl
  • Heroin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health Policy


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