Fentanyl overdoses soar in Washington as drug gets into out-of-state abusers

This article by Alex Berezow was originally published on May 29.

Federal agents in Washington have been tracking an uptick in deaths caused by the powerful painkiller fentanyl as fear about the presence of the drug has prompted panicked hospitals to be more vigilant about monitoring their narcotic doses.

“This is poison,” said the Drug Enforcement Administration’s acting special agent in charge in Washington, John R. Murphy. “You don’t just put something on your face and go to sleep, you get up and you walk around. That’s how people die from this drug.”

Heroin overdoses are down in the District, but there have been about 30 fatal fentanyl overdoses so far this year, a threefold increase over last year, according to the DEA.

“Deaths from fentanyl-related overdoses are increasingly concentrated in the District of Columbia,” said U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu in a statement. “Fentanyl is especially deadly, with a potential for life-threatening, excruciating pain. As a result, it is our responsibility to identify these drugs and aggressively investigate those who import and sell them.”

For Drug Enforcement Administration officials and drug-control specialists in law enforcement, those who are charged with trying to crack down on the sale of illegal drugs should not wait until they are dead or so-called diverted fentanyl mixed with heroin appears on the streets.

“These are people who are already very strong narcotic users,” said Corey Odums, an assistant attorney in the DEA’s District of Columbia office. “They are generally actively obtaining the drugs. There’s nothing that I or anyone else can do to make them change their mind at that moment.”

For a few months this year, the DEA has been working with the district’s law enforcement officials to track fentanyl before, during and after its abuse.

“They are the backbone of illicit drugs,” said Garth Reis, an assistant U.S. attorney in the District’s drug division. “But a lot of these don’t make it that far.”

Murphy, the DEA’s acting special agent in charge in Washington, said when investigators begin making their case, they can bring pressure to bear on dealers.

If an investigation reveals that they are importing large amounts of fentanyl and selling it in the District at what they argue is a highly marketable price, “there could be 10 or 20 [deaths],” Murphy said.

The life expectancy in a jurisdiction where fentanyl has a track record is “wholly dependent on the nature of the interaction between the seller and the buyer,” Reis said.

“With those buyers,” he said, “there’s really no negotiating. If you’re selling 1 gram, they would buy 1 kilo.”

That is because large amounts of heroin, oxycodone, morphine and fentanyl are also known as “black tar heroin” or “gray heroin.” Because the street value of a kilo of heroin is about $20,000, many dealers may be tempted to take possession of the kilo and fill it with smaller amounts of the drugs. That would mean the heroin would be sold in the smallest amounts possible, according to Reis.

“Fentanyl is like ground asbestos,” Murphy said. “Because you don’t know when and how much you’re going to be exposed to, and it affects the size and function of blood vessels in the body.”

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