With street names such as Drop Dead, Flatline, and Lethal Injection, fentanyl-laced heroin and cocaine are marketed by drug dealers as the ultimate high. But these drugs are so dangerous that hundreds have died. From Chicago, one of the hardest hit US cities, David Boddiger reports.
Mike Wickster, a bald and tattooed 34-year-old, has been brought back from death’s door ten times after overdosing on heroin, most recently on heroin he believes was laced with the powerful synthetic opiate fentanyl. He survived and eventually wound up in jail where he had to go “clean”. With help, he has stayed off drugs for 7 months and now works in a harm-reduction programme trying to help drug users. But friends from his drug-using past still call when they have found a source for heroin with fentanyl.
“Just yesterday someone said, ‘I know where to get fentanyl.’ People want it because it’s powerful and extreme. Deaths are like an advertisement—for every 10 people that die, 100 more will go looking for it”, he says.
Fentanyl is not new to veteran abusers, but in the past it had been obtained by diverting prescriptions. According to Timothy Ogden, Chicago’s top Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official, clandestine fentanyl labs were occasionally discovered in the 1980s and 1990s. But those operations were nowhere near the size and scope of today’s fentanyl networks controlled by international drug traffickers.
“In 30 years of law enforcement experience, I haven’t seen this much of a threat before”, Ogden says. “It’s like a game of Russian roulette, only you’re putting five bullets in the chamber.”
Health workers began to notice a spike in opiate overdoses and overdose deaths late last year. When sophisticated toxicology tests of autopsy material revealed the presence of fentanyl, police started testing the heroin from street dealers finding the synthetic opiate.
By May this year, fentanyl overdoses had spread to cities in eight states, including Chicago, Detroit, St Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Camden, New Jersey. Fentanyl has been linked to 130 deaths in Detroit and 100 in Chicago in only a few months. In New Jersey, the drug cocktail killed three and hospitalised 42 in one weekend alone.
“The May numbers are the highest we’ve seen yet, and we expect that trend to continue”, says Edmund Donoghue, medical examiner for Chicago’s Cook County. “This is something we haven’t seen in Chicago before. We’re really stunned by it. We have had problems where ambulances were called for multiple overdoses, entire groups of people in the same place.”