SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) - A deadly mix of drugs is changing the opioid epidemic as we know it.
The 22News I-Team dug deeper into the state's opioid crisis, and uncovered three quarters of the victims who died of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts last year had an illicit drug called fentanyl in their system.
Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that's usually prescribed to cancer patients for chronic pain, but the I-Team discovered an illicit version of the drug is being mixed into heroin, then sold right here in western Massachusetts. It has already killed hundreds of people across the state, and thousands across the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate from overdoses caused by synthetic opioids, including illicit fentanyl, increased 72% from 2014 to 2015 nationwide.
Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan told the I-Team the epidemic has had a major impact on western Massachusetts; “Just in the last two years, fentanyl has been coming into the heroin supplies so we've seen a dramatic change in the overdose rate. In our jurisdiction there has been an increase from last year to this year, it went up 25% in Hampshire and Franklin Counties so, it’s a significant increase.”
Illicit fentanyl is typically manufactured as a white powder, making it easy for traffickers to mix it into drugs like heroin. Fentanyl's potency is what makes it so dangerous. A few salt-sized grains is enough to kill an adult. The overdose reversal drug, Naloxone, isn’t always enough to bring an overdose victims back.
Michael Ferguson, the Special Agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Agency's New England Division, told the I-Team that’s what makes it so dangerous, “Oftentimes there is no second chance.” He said illicit fentanyl is usually trafficked into the U.S, “It is distributed to Mexican drug cartels in Mexico, who lace the fentanyl in with heroin, which in turn is distributed in the U.S.”
Ferguson said the "Sinaoloa Drug Cartel" is one of the most prominent fentanyl traffickers in Mexico, and they also dominate heroin distribution in the Northeast; “They grow the poppy, then process the heroin, then they obtain the fentanyl from China, and they will lace the fentanyl there in Mexico in with the heroin.”
Fentanyl-related deaths outpaced heroin deaths for the first time ever in Massachusetts last year. 2,000 people died of opioid drug-related overdoses across the state last year, and 1,500 of those deaths involved fentanyl.
Fentanyl isn't just a concern for heroin users. Ferguson said the dangerous drug has also been found in several other drugs that are sold on the street, including cocaine, counterfeit Oxycodone, and Hydrocodone pills.
The state has invested more money into treatment programs to help curb the epidemic.
The federal government has also recognized the issue. Senator Edward Markey filed a resolution in Congress that calls for cooperation between the U.S., China, and Mexico, including enhanced enforcement to reduce the illegal supply of fentanyl, and increased use of evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery services.
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Prescription vs. Illicit Fentanyl
- Prescription Fentanyl - Schedule II synthetic opioid originally developed to serve as both a painkiller and an anesthetic. It is commonly prescribed to treat severe pain, to manage pain after surgery, or to cancer patients.
- Illicit Fentanyl - Usually manufactured in Mexico or China, then smuggled into the U.S. It is usually mixed with heroin products, or pressed into counterfeit prescription pills, often without the users' awareness.