A new type of synthetic heroin known as carfentanil is killing people nationwide. So far this year, five deaths in Minnesota were connected to the lethal drug. Another five cases are potentially linked to synthetic heroin, but toxicology tests are still pending.
Synthetic heroin like carfentanil is 100 times more powerful than the drug fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. According to Ken Solek, an agent with the Minnesota office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said there is no amount that is safe for human consumption.
“This is a health crisis,” said Drew Evans, superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. “Carfentanil will kill you.”
Carfentanil limits a person’s ability to breathe and will cause death moments after ingesting just a very small amount. The synthetic opioid is usually imported from China and used to tranquilize large animals in preparation for surgery. The drug is so effective, it only takes two milligrams to immobilize a 2,000-pound elephant.
Drug dealers often sell synthetic opioids like carfentanil camouflaged as real heroin to unsuspecting addicts. These people use the drug without knowing what it really is and quickly succumb to its intoxicating effect. Many overdose and die. Replacing heroin with the synthetic version means high profits for drug pushers. Carfentanil is still relatively new and many labs do not have the ability to test for it.
“The drug is so new very little is known about it and the impact the drug has on humans,” said Dr. Jon Cole, medical director of the Minnesota Poison Control System, as cited by the Star Tribune. “We don’t even know how much carfentanil is in the current heroin supply.”
The Minnesota overdose victims ranged in ages from 23 to 43 and their deaths occurred between January 30 and February 17. While carfentanil is now the confirmed cause of death, it took some specialized testing to detect the synthetic heroin in the victims’ systems. The test results were received earlier this week.
Authorities are not yet sure if the synthetic heroin came from the same source. Most likely the carfentanil was made in China and smuggled into the U.S. by Mexican drug cartels, said Solek. It also may have been purchased online.
“There aren’t a lot of repeat offenders with the drug,” said Solek, per the same Star Tribune report. “Any new drug on the market is frustrating for law enforcement. We feel like we are always chasing that dragon.”
A drug bust in New York found 34 people operating a drug ring involving a synthetic opioid very similar to carfentanil. According to local police, the drug was distributed by a notorious street gang and was easily bought for less than $10 per dose.
Opioid-related deaths continue to rise nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 52,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2015, up from 47,000 in 2014. Nearly 66 percent of those were related to opioids, and synthetic heroin was responsible for 9,580 overdose deaths.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this. Certainly not in modern times,” said Robert Anderson, who oversees death statistics at the CDC, per a Chicago Tribune report.
Through an executive order, President Donald Trump launched a group specifically tasked with creating an action plan to stop synthetic heroin and other illicit drugs from entering the country as well as help current addicts get treatment. The Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis will be headed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, an outspoken advocate of the fight against the opioid epidemic.
“Opioid abuse has become a crippling problem throughout the United States,” said President Trump on Wednesday. “And I think it’s almost untalked about compared to the severity that we’re witnessing.”
With synthetic heroin and other opioids flooding the streets, authorities nationwide are encouraging law enforcement, first responders, and hospitals purchase Naloxone, an opioid antidote. If administered quickly enough, Naloxone can save the life of someone overdosing on carfentanil.
[Featured Image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]