DEA: Fentanyl a deadly force in opioid crisis

Deadly doses of heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil are displayed by the Kensington Police Service in Prince Edward Island, Canada, in May 2017 to compare the potency of each drug.

Fentanyl manufactured in foreign countries and smuggled into the U.S. poses the greater risk compared to the medication illegally diverted by patients and doctors, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The synthetic opioid is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times that of morphine, the DEA says. It’s increasingly cut into heroin or sold on its own, sometimes to unsuspecting users.

Fentanyl surpassed heroin as the leading opioid detected in fatal drug overdose cases in Pennsylvania two years ago and continues to rise in prevalence.

The Philadelphia Division of the DEA reports 79 percent of overdose deaths in 2017 involved fentanyl, either included in mixed-drug toxicity fatalities or the outright cause. That’s up from 52 percent in 2016.

In the 12 months through October 2017, no state in the country counted more overdose deaths than Pennsylvania’s 5,535, according to the latest provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 68,400 fatal overdoses occurred nationally during the same period. Both estimates are on the rise.

“The supply of fentanyl, as determined by law enforcement seizures and intelligence, continues to rise. Fentanyl production is cheaper than heroin production and Transnational Criminal Organizations are increasing their profit by supplying fentanyl over other drugs,” said Laura Hendrick, field intelligence manager for the DEA’s Philadelphia division.

The DEA reports counterfeit opioids mostly manufactured in China and Mexico, and distributed through an illegal supply chain in the U.S., Canada and Mexico as well as the internet’s dark web. Agents in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania seized 200,359 grams of fentanyl in 2017, up from 58,102 grams the year before.

Northumberland County set a new record for overdose deaths in 2017: 30. Of those cases, 18 involved fentanyl in some way. Fentanyl was present in seven of 18 drug deaths occurring in Union County since 2016.

Two defendants in Northumberland and Snyder counties, respectively, have criminal cases pending for the alleged sale of fentanyl in unrelated fatal overdose cases.

“It’s much cheaper and they’re using it as a replacement for heroin. People think they’re buying heroin and they’re buying pure fentanyl,” said Todd Owens, a retired police chief and current Northumberland County deputy sheriff who heads the Northumberland-Montour Drug Task Force.

First responders should be more cautious now — surgical masks, thicker exam gloves — as fentanyl and even deadlier derivatives circulate among users, Owens said. There’ve been several confirmed reports of law enforcement or ambulance personnel overdosing themselves on contact with synthetic opioids dusting an overdose patient’s clothing or skin.

Bob Hare, general manager of Sunbury's Americus Hose Co., said the company's responders are on high alert for risks involved with all narcotics, not just fentanyl.

"I think our responders are in danger. People are more violent when on these drugs; needles, you got HIV, hepatitis — all things that play into the fact that make it more dangerous today than it has ever been," Hare said. 

Police continue to make arrests in the Valley for heroin, methamphetamine and the like, particularly in Northumberland County’s coal region. Owens admits the seemingly neverending cycle can wear on law enforcement.

“We arrest one person and two more pop up,” Owens said “It sometimes feels like we’re not winning. It’s frustrating.”

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