Killer Opiate Fentanyl Is Everywhere—And It’s Making Police Overdose

Photo by Ty Wright for/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images

The police officer responding to a drug bust in East Liverpool, Ohio—a small city 85 miles southeast of Cleveland near the Pennsylvania border—was following procedure: He’d donned gloves and a mask while searching a car and handling the seized material, a white powder that was almost certainly some kind of opiate.  

But somehow, he spilled some of the powder on his uniform shirt.

After another cop pointed it out, he brushed the mystery powder off his shirt with an ungloved hand—and promptly passed out.

The powder turned out to be fentanyl, the synthetic opiate “credited” for the rapid and steep increase in fatal overdoses, and the cop was the victim of an “accidental drug overdose,” as police later told the Associated Press.

The unnamed officer was “treated with an overdose reversal drug,” most likely naloxone—which police officers in many states hit hard by the epidemic now carry on their utility belts, along with tasers and guns—and was “fine” after a few days.  

However, the mishap is only one in a series of events that have had a troubling chilling effect on first responders and serve as a grim reminder to everyone else living in America during the opiate overdose crisis: The country’s meteoric rise in opioid-related overdoses can be traced directly back to a change in supply.

By now, the narrative is as familiar of an American tale as stories about Detroit’s decline or 9/11: When the “pill mills” that sparked the country’s ongoing opiate addiction were shut down, addicts turned to street heroin.  

When heroin became too expensive or too onerous to acquire, enterprising drug dealers turned to synthetics like fentanyl—which, despite its terminal strength, is becoming the adulterant of choice among other street drugs.

According to the New York City Department of Public Health, fentanyl is now appearing in the local cocaine supply.  

Once the country’s capital for heroin use, New York City has fewer fatal opiate overdoses than places like Ohio and Pennsylvania in both sheer numbers and per capita—but almost 40 percent of the city’s 1,300 fatal overdoses in 2016 came from fentanyl-tainted cocaine, the city’s health commissioner told Business Insider.

“All New Yorkers who use drugs, even if only occasionally, should know their drugs may be mixed with fentanyl,” said commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett in a statement to Business Insider. 

Fentanyl-laced cocaine has also appeared in Cincinnati, Vancouver and Rhode Island, Business Insider reported.

Originally developed as a sort of “nuclear option” painkiller for patients wracked with intractable agony from cancer, fentanyl is becoming a de rigueur street drug because it is powerful, cheap and extraordinarily easy to acquire—in bulk, and without much risk of detection by law enforcement.

As the New York Times reported on Saturday, opiate sellers who can’t get their hands on prescription pills from unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies or doctors, or any heroin imported from Mexico, have a much easier and more profitable supply route—the Internet, where, on online drug marketplaces like the legendary Silk Road, almost anyone can acquire some mail-order fentanyl.

In 2015, 33,000 Americans died from an opiate-related overdose, after death rates in more than 10 states increased by double digits, according to the Centers for Disease Control; in some of those states, most notably the Trump-supporting Rust Belt heartland of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, overdose deaths have increased by more than 20 percent year-over-year.  

Numbers are still being crunched from last year, but the butcher’s bill in 2016 is likely to exceed 59,000.

In 2015, fentanyl alone is said to have killed almost 9,600 people—a 73 percent increase from 2014.

In far-away Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey—an avowed opponent to the legalization of marijuana, which, multiple studies suggest, reduces both the frequency and severity of opiate overdoses—declared the overdose crisis an official public-health emergency last week. “Heroin overdoses” have tripled since 2012, a development for which fentanyl—and another, even stronger and even deadlier analog called carfentanil, a drug developed as an elephant tranquilizer—is almost certainly responsible.

As police in the Washington, D.C. area told WTOP, fentanyl’s prevalence is changing the way officers do their jobs.

Not long after the Ohio police officer wiped his shirt and overdosed, another police officer, transporting some fentanyl back to the lab for testing, started experiencing overdose symptoms and had to be taken away in an ambulance.

Police are now “considering” carrying extra doses of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone on their utility belts next to their tasers and gun—for use on themselves. 

It seems clearer than ever before that America is having a synthetic opiate crisis as much as anything else—it’s a fentanyl crisis.

If the drugs out there were just heroin, people wouldn’t be dying in such numbers. But, as the Times reported, the fentanyl crisis would not be as bad if the drug weren’t so easy to buy online on the dark web. 

Last fall, a pair of 13-year-olds in wealthy Park City, Utah—home of the Sundance Film Festival—died after they used a synthetic opioid they bought from another local teenager, who’d acquired the stuff online through a bitcoin transaction.

Police tacitly admit they really don’t know what to do about the flood of drugs coming in via the U.S. mails.

“We could give you a pretty good idea of the drug traffickers in town who can order kilos from Mexico—that’s a known commodity,” said Joseph M. Pinjuh, who runs the local U.S. attorney’s office organized crime task force in Cleveland, in comments to the Times. “What’s harder to track is the person ordering this from his grandmother’s basement.”  

So, as another former federal prosecutor told the Times, the fentanyl problem is only going to get worse.

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