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Oklahomans warned about illegal drugs fentanyl, Carfentanil

Paige Sutherland / New Hampshire Public Radio
These vials show the lethal dosage of each drug. As you can see Carfentanil is significantly more potent.
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- In late summer 2016, heroin users were dropping dead at an astonishing rate in just one week in one small Ohio county. That county reported 96 overdoses in a seven-day period, thanks to a synthetic opioid used as an elephant tranquilizer that was cut into the heroin.

Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid that is believed to be 10,000 times stronger than morphine and up to 10,000 times stronger than heroin. The drug’s only use is to sedate large mammals like elephants, but even then, only two milligrams of the drug is needed to put down a 2,000-pound bull elephant.

Just one dose the size of a grain of sand of Carfentanil can kill a human instantly, yet a new wave of chemists in countries like China are adding the lethal opioid, along with its little brother fentanyl, to heroin because the drugs are easy and cheap to make.

In Oklahoma, fentanyl has already made an appearance, but Carfentanil has not, said Mark Woodward, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. But that doesn’t mean law enforcement and the public shouldn’t be concerned.

“We have not seen Carfentanil in Oklahoma, but you’ll know it if it does. If it hits the city, the sheer number of deaths linked to it will be unmistakable,” said Woodward. “We want to get the word out to not only the public, but to the users. The street dealers they buy from don’t want to kill their customers, but they may not know that what the heroin has been cut with is lethal.

This week, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) issued an urgent public alert regarding the dangers posed by drugs circulating America’s streets and neighborhoods as a result of the current opioid crisis. The alert is intended to help the public recognize and avoid suspicious materials when they are nearby.

“The threat is unprecedented,” warns ASCLD President Ray Wickenheiser. “Some of the clandestine substances being sold or made accessible have formulations that are so toxic that it’s better to consider them poison.”

The street drugs the public may be exposed to can be so dangerous that even trace amounts can be fatal when ingested, inhaled or even absorbed through the skin. A lethal dose of Carfentanil is approximately 20 micrograms, which is about the size of a grain of salt. The problem is so serious that it requires scientists working in crime laboratories across the United States to take additional special precautions to protect their own safety, Wickenheiser said.

But while Carfentanil hasn’t been confirmed in Oklahoma, fentanyl has. In 2016, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation reported opioids in 896 cases, and in the first six months of 2017, 452 cases contained opioids. Of those cases, more than 22 types of fentanyl were identified in crime labs in 2016 nationwide, and the OSBI reported five different types of fentanyl.

Fentanyl is an opioid pain medication that can also be produced illegally and sold stronger and cheaper than prescription fentnayl, Woodward said.

In addition, according to the ASCLD and OSBI, 2017 has seen a 54 percent increase in fentanyl cases submitted to crime labs nationwide while the OSBI in 2016 saw 22 cases where fentanyl was identified. In the first six months of 2017, OSBI analysts identified fentanyl in 32 cases. From January through October 2017, OSBI has identified fentanyl in 37 cases.

On a national level, the ASCLD said that between 2012 and 2016, laboratories have witnessed a 6000 percent increase in fentanyl cases, which corresponds directly with the overdose deaths being seen nationwide. Case backlogs have increased by roughly 28 percent in the last year due to the increasing case submissions, case complexity and danger of the drugs now being seized by law enforcement, according to the ASCLD.

“The black market versions are being mass produced in China and shipped to the U.S.,” said Woodward.

“They can be mixed with heroin or pressed into tablets like oxycotin, so you have users buying heroin or oxy without realizing what has been added. Last year, we submitted our chemical bill to the legislature, which we do every year, to make a number of new types of fentanyl illegal in Oklahoma. By time the legislature was done in May, we had already identified even more new versions, so this type of legislation is constantly ongoing.”

Because fentanyl can be easily manipulated to create new versions of the drug, the OBN submits a yearly bill to add new versions of the drug to the outlawed list in Oklahoma, he said.

“The problem is also that the street dealers don’t know. They think they are selling the same heroin,” Woodward said. “But the danger goes beyond that. If Carfentanil is shipped, then everyone between China and the U.S. laboratories are put at risk. You can inhale just one small particle that could kill. Postal workers, customs… A lot of these drugs are simply being shipped through the mail.”

New, lethal synthetic drugs aren’t new. In the early 1980s, a similar drug called China White resulted in a rash of overdose deaths. According to heroin.net, "China White" is also a term for a heroin that is highly sought after for its powerful effects. While the powder appears white, it is not pure heroin, but a mixture of heroin and fentanyl.

This drug combination, 100 times stronger than heroin alone, was what made “China White” powerful enough to make the news with its death tolls.

According to Wickenheiser, approximately 94 percent of all crime laboratories in the United States compile and share data pertaining to drug evidence submissions.

“Crime laboratories see and identify a variety of drugs, compiling statistics from across many law enforcement agencies. There is a direct relationship between the kinds of drugs we are seeing in our laboratories and the spike in overdose deaths being reported in hospitals across the country,” he said.

ASCLD warns members of the public to pay attention in order to recognize and avoid dangerous drug paraphernalia. Drugs seen in America’s crime laboratories are often packaged, transported and used with common household items. The ASCLD said items like pills, tablets and unidentified candy; white or gray powder, wax papers or small knotted plastic bags; clear capsules with powder; and stickers and labels that seem out of place are common ways to transport illegal substances.

“We did a bust where someone hid liquid methamphetamine in windshield wiper fluid,” Woodward said. “It was blue, so it blended. There are a variety of ways we’ve seen illegal drugs come in, including in car batteries and stuffed animals.

“While Carfentanil hasn’t been seen in Oklahoma yet, it’s something people need to keep in the front of their minds, especially law enforcement,” he added.

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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