Pure fentanyl active in recent overdose deaths, coroner says

·6 min read

Jun. 27—Local officials remain concerned about the active supply of pure fentanyl in the community as the latest Lucas County coroner's report reveals combinations of the synthetic opioid with other drugs and alcohol took the lives of 18 more people recently.

The report, which details rulings from the coroner's office from April 7-30, shows 11 men and seven women overdosed due to drug and fentanyl toxicity. Half of the deaths came from a mixture of fentanyl and ethanol — which is sometimes referred to as grain alcohol and can come in liquid and powder form — or cocaine, a popular stimulant that has tragically resurfaced as part of a fourth wave of the opioid crisis nationally.

Of the 18 individuals named in the corner's report, 13 were white men and women, and the average age of death among the individuals was 41.4, a Blade analysis found. All of the overdoses involved fentanyl.

Lt. Steve Rogers, who heads the Lucas County Sheriff's Office Drug Abuse Response Team, said pure fentanyl is "fairly prevalent" in the community, leaving him concerned about the fact many individuals are buying it and knowingly ingesting it.

"There's the old saying, 'Chasing the dragon," he said. "You're never going to experience the high that you experience the first time you used. I feel like a lot of individuals they're always in a sense chasing the dragon. There's been scenes of overdoses when I was a street officer, being one of the first responders on scene, and administering Narcan to reverse the overdose, and they're upset and angry that we brought them back because we ruined their high."

"They prefer to have that high over just heroin," he added of fentanyl users.

Lieutenant Rogers said synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil — a drug 100 times more potent than fentanyl — continue to flood into Ohio from other countries. And those opioids are finding ways into Toledo and Lucas County, he said.

A 2017 report from the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission cited Ohio as ground zero for illicit fentanyl use in the United States and revealed the drug's path to the U.S. is often from China, and sometimes through Mexico.

One strategy federal officials are still trying to fully implement is to stop opioid traffickers in China from sending small shipments through the U.S. Postal Service without being tracked. In 2018, former President Trump signed into law the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, known as the STOP Act, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), to close the loophole. In the months following the former president's signing, the co-sponsors, and activists criticized the post office's progress on fully implementing the act, and its inability to provide data by deadlines set forth by congress.

Juliette Kayyem, an adviser to the Americans for Securing All Packages coalition, which seeks to prevent fentanyl and synthetic opioids from flowing through the mail, told The Blade last year it was "remarkable" how slow federal agencies were acting to close loopholes that allow traffickers to pour illicit fentanyl into the U.S.

"We have a big problem," she said. "The loophole is keeping an industry that's killing thousands of people going."

In March, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas signed an Interim Final Rule "to promulgate regulations that will enable U.S. Customs and Border Protection to implement provisions required in the STOP Act," as part of the Biden Administration's effort to end the international drug trafficking.

But shipments of synthetic opioids are flowing to the United States through means outside of the postal service too, said Melissa Burek, a professor of health and human services at Bowling Green State University.

"If you're involved in marketing and drug trade at that level, you're not necessarily using USPS, you're using international shipping methods, and it's not necessarily coming through the typical method like if you were to order something else online," said the professor who studies substance abuse, opioids, and mental illness.

"It's readily available, and in some places it's cheaper," she said. "So sometimes it's just the availability."

Mahjida Steffin, the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department's opioid prevention program coordinator, who coordinates with members of Northwest Ohio Syringe Services for harm reduction efforts and hosts group meetings with recovering addicts, said dealers are providing synthetic opioids locally and users are willing to buy fentanyl despite how deadly it is.

"There are drug dealers who are dealing to people seeking out fentanyl," she said. "We know that. I think that there are people who are looking for a new high because if you look at the whole entire spectrum of this wave of the opioid epidemic and how things are being added to each other, it's two things that should not mix, and now it's a new high for someone. They haven't had a new high for a while because they've been pretty steady with their opioid tolerance, and then all of a sudden it's like 'Whoa, I want that.'"

Lucas County overdose numbers for 2020 aren't final, according to Dr. Robert Forney, the chief toxicologist for the Lucas County Coroner's Office, who said it will take a while into the year to finish the cases, particularly for 2020 in which his office experienced a backlog of cases due to office shutdowns during the pandemic. But whatever the final total is, preliminary numbers highlight a persistent problem locally.

After 265 people died in Lucas County from drug overdoses in 2019, a preliminary count had 219 deaths recorded from January to November last year. Ohio Department of Health statistics show 244 overdoses in Lucas County in 2020, but that data tracks Ohio residents only, whereas Lucas County tracks deaths that occur in the county regardless of residency.

Though locally there hasn't been a significant growth of methamphetamine use — a growing trend nationally and in Ohio — Ms. Steffin said she's concerned it could become the next prevalent drug locally as usage of different drugs tends to ebb and flow in waves.

"I absolutely think it could find its way here," she said. "As cocaine seizures have been decreasing, other things could rise."

Lieutenant Rogers said the county has made significant efforts into harm reduction and getting drugs off of the street, but that first barrier of getting individuals to want to beat addiction remains an every day battle.

"Our biggest challenge is convincing someone to give treatment a try," he said.

First Published June 26, 2021, 10:00am

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