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Cheaper Cost, Bigger Supply Make Fentanyl New ‘go To’ Drug

December 21, 2018
Cheaper Cost, Bigger Supply Make Fentanyl New 'go To' Drug

When Lackawanna County Coroner Tim Rowland first detected an increased number of fentanyl-related deaths in 2015, he was concerned the number would continue to grow.

He never imagined that, just three years later, the synthetic opioid would become a leading cause of overdose deaths.

“It used to be heroin and fentanyl. Now it’s fentanyl and some heroin,” Rowland said.

Fentanyl was detected in 46 of the 88 overdose deaths in Lackawanna County last year, according to OverdoseFreePA, a University of Pittsburgh project that tracks overdose deaths.

Authorities suspect fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, caused the recent rash of 10 overdose deaths in six days in Lackawanna County, although that won’t be confirmed until toxicology tests come back.

Several factors have impacted fentanyl-related death rates, including the increased potency of the drug. Dealers are mixing a higher percentage of fentanyl with heroin and, in some cases, passing off straight fentanyl as heroin, because it is cheaper and easier to obtain.

“I’m not saying heroin is obsolete, but fentanyl is much easier to produce,” Rowland said. “With heroin, you have to grow a plant, harvest the plant, manufacture the drug and distribute it. Fentanyl is made in a lab.”

A 2017 report by the Philadelphia office of the Drug Enforcement Agency and University Pittsburgh also mentioned the trend, noting it’s possible the increased availability of fentanyl will reduce the demand and the production of heroin.

The problem is, dealers are not necessarily telling their customers they’re getting fentanyl, Rowland said.

“God forbid, you can’t trust your drug dealer to give you the product you want,” Rowland said. “You have no idea what you’re buying … It looks like heroin but it’s fentanyl.”

The result can be deadly for addicts who don’t realize what they’re buying is far more potent than what they’ve used in the past.

“I know people who would use 30 to 40 bags of heroin a day prior to fentanyl,” said Scranton Police Chief Carl Graziano. “Now they use one bag and it kills them.”

Graziano said fentanyl is primarily produced in clandestine labs in Mexico and China and transported to the United States via the mail. Most of the heroin and fentanyl mix in Lackawanna County comes from dealers in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey.

Users have no way to know how much fentanyl is in the mix. They also have no control over the potency of the drug, which varies significantly from batch to batch, he said.

“There is no quality control,” Graziano said.

Field test kits can tell if a substance is heroin, but no test can determine the amount of fentanyl or other drugs heroin is cut with prior to using it, Graziano said.

He likened the situation to playing Russian roulette.

“You don’t know if the next time you spin the chamber if there is a bullet in there,” he said.

Graziano said police continue to aggressively investigate the recent overdose cases to try to identify and charge those who supplied the drugs. On a national level, authorities continue efforts to stem the tide of fentanyl coming into the United States.

There were 419 seizures of fentanyl in Pennsylvania, ranking it third in the nation behind Massachusetts and Ohio in 2014, according to the latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Marty Henehan of Scranton, founder of the Forever Sammi Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports addiction recovery, said he’s continuing his efforts to get addicts into drug rehabilitation. He also warns those who continue to use drugs to be mindful they may be getting more than they bargained for. He’s particularly concerned about addicts just released from prison after serving a lengthy sentence.

“They get out of prison thinking the quality of the heroin is the same,” he said.

Too often, they’re wrong.

“These kids say, ‘I’ll use just one last time,’” he said. “They might be right. It might be the last time — for anything.”

Contact the writer: tbesecker@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9137; @tmbeseckerTT on Twitter

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