New England Fentanyl Deaths Continue To Surge: Thousands Dead In 2016
In recent years, Mexican cartels have began trafficking mass quantities of the potent opioid fentanyl into New England and across the U.S. The result is an incredibly high rate of drug overdoses, a trend that many are calling a straight-up epidemic.
According to officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration, the chain of supply usually begins as far away as China and runs through Mexico before it ends up in the U.S., where it’s packaged and distributed across the nation.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid many times more powerful than heroin, and up to 100 times more potent than morphine. Indeed, the drug is so powerful that incidental skin contact can cause an overdose, and first responders and others who may be exposed to the drug often have to wear protective gear.
In a medical setting, it’s used in very small amounts for general anesthesia. By prescription, it’s most often administered slowly through the skin as a transdermal patch, and used in the treatment of severe pain associated with serious conditions such as cancer and end-of-life scenarios.
But the fentanyl found on the streets is not a product of drug diversion. Rather, it is manufactured in China, processed in Mexico into pills or powder, and shipped to distributors in the U.S.
It’s very inexpensive and easy to produce, and dealers love to use it laced into heroin to maximize profits.
What’s even scarier is that the pills are often marketed as something else – such as much less potent but desirable drugs such as oxycodone and Xanax. This fact is often unknown to the user, who thinks they are just getting their drug of choice.
But using fentanyl is like playing Russian roulette – dealers don’t regulate how much they are putting into their product, and the amount and potency of the fentanyl can vary from one batch to another – and one dose to another.
New England’s Drug Crisis
Although the epidemic has raged throughout most of the country, New England has undoubtedly been particularly hard-hit. For example, New Hampshire and Massachusetts rank first and second in rates of fentanyl deaths per capita.
Last year, opioids were associated with more than 2,060 deaths in Massachusetts, up by 15% from the year before. In toxicology reports, fentanyl was identified in 69% of those deaths. In New Hampshire, 70% of deaths related to opioids were also linked to the drug.
In 2016, there were also 194 fentanyl deaths in Maine, reflecting a 126% rise over the previous year. Comparatively, heroin and morphine were linked to 123 deaths. In total, these three drugs accounted for 63% of all drug deaths.
Vermont’s numbers appear to be a bit odd because they appear to classify fentanyl as a prescription opioid, whereas most agencies place the drug in the same category as heroin, an illicit opioid. According to the Vermont State Health Department, fentanyl was responsible for about half of all deaths from prescription opioids, which numbered 104.
The Rhode Island Health Department reported that there were 215 fentanyl deaths in the state in 2016 – more than the total number of overdose fatalities overall in any year before 2013. Finally, fentanyl deaths in Connecticut rose 155% from 2015-2016 to 479.
Overall Drug Overdose Death Rates
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015, New Hampshire (34.3 per 100,000) and Rhode Island (28.2 per 100,000) ranked #2 and #5 in the nation in overall overdose death rates.
Also, the CDC reported that “significant increases in drug overdose death rates from 2014 to 2015 were primarily seen in the Northeast and South Census Regions.” New England states with “statistically significant increases in drug overdose death rates from 2014 to 2015” included Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
The Chain Of Supply
Fentanyl can be obtained on the street for a relatively low price, but it can also be ordered online from the Dark Web – the Internet black market where just about anything illicit can found, purchased, or sold. The drugs can be shipped in from China, often undetected by the U.S. Postal Service.
However, according to the DEA, most of the fentanyl (about 80%) in New England comes from Mexico and smuggled across the border.
Next, the drugs are hidden in secret compartments, often in semi trucks carrying other goods, and driven to cities where interstate highways connect and the transfer to others is quick and easy.
Once at its destination, it’s mixed in clandestine labs in homes and apartments and the final process is a fairly simple one – in fact, blenders are often used.
Finally, local drug dealers distribute the fentanyl, who often combine it with other drugs and additives to maximum their supply and profits. Since last year, the DEA reports that it has seized around 99 pounds of fentanyl in New England, and 73 pounds of heroin combined with fentanyl.
The influx of fentanyl and related overdoses began about three years ago when the drug began appearing in what users (and even some dealers) believed to be straight heroin. Users are savvier now, and do know that fentanyl may be in their drug supply, but are often willing to risk death for the intense high.
And with regular use, opioid addiction sets in even harder. Fentanyl’s effects are shorter than heroin, and withdrawal symptoms occur sooner. Thus, the dependence drives users to search for fentanyl because regular heroin doesn’t cut it anymore.
Cost And Profits
A kilogram of fentanyl can be purchased for around $5,000 in China and sold for $55,000 in New England. After adding buffers such as talcum powder, that amount can garner $500,000 and produce seven kilos of the opioid concoction.
On the streets, fentanyl can cost $300-$400 for ten grams, or $50-$75 for a gram and $25 for a half gram, according to DEA officials.
If the drug is pressed into pills, profits can increase even more. Just one kilo of fentanyl can produce 500,000 pills, sold at least $10 a piece. Moreover, a $5,000 investment can turn into $10 million. But these counterfeit pills can be very dangerous and deadly.
The Good News
While many officials believe that the epidemic will get worse before it gets better, there are some promising signs of a slow down. For example, in Massachusetts, the increase in deaths related to opioids has reduced pace recently, from a 40% increase in 2014 to just 16% last year.
Also, thanks to urging from the U.S. DEA, China has started to crack down on illicit fentanyl production, and police have been making some progress in curbing the drug flow. The DEA now has task forces at 16 locations in New England where federal agents and state and local police collaborate.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology
https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html fentanyl deaths