Sprinkled across the Midwest and cascading along the Gulf Coast of Florida is a new synthetic opioid that can kill in doses smaller than a snowflake.
Commonly paired with its opiate siblings, fentanyl and heroin, carfentanil has been reported to be 100 times more potent than fentanyl, making it one of the most potent forms of opioids, according to a New York Timesarticle.
But what exactly makes this potent opioid so dangerous?
John Hatmaker, 29, would find out just how powerful the drug is when he became one of its victims during a two-week overdose spike that affected more than 200 people in Cincinnati.
Read more: Six Disturbing Facts about Carfentanil
On Aug. 27, Hatmaker, who previously suffered from a heroin and prescription pill addiction, decided to snort a small sample of heroin sold to him just before taking his son to a Hope Over Heroin prayer rally.
Not long after, Hatmaker found himself in the back of an ambulance being resuscitated back to life after he suffered an overdose—his eighth one in the past four years.
Hatmaker is just one of many addicts to become enthralled by a new form of heroin cut with fentanyl or carfentanil. But the consequences of this new potent substance is more than just a better high, but a grapple with death itself.
Synthetic Opioids Increase in Popularity Among Heroin Addicts
In late August, authorities in Cincinnati, Illinois, and areas in West Virginia were alarmed at the high rates of heroin overdoses, causing national attention to the impending threat to heroin abusers.
Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared the increasing heroin and prescription pill addiction an epidemic in 2014, synthetic opioid drugs have ravaged drug markets as the government cracks down on the painkiller prescriptions.
And carfentanil falls right into the midst of this new yet complex drug culture.
The drug, which is used to tranquilize elephants and other large zoo animals, has been showing up in cases of heroin across certain areas of the US despite its unrelated use to drug addicts.
Because of its restricted use, it’s only allowed in very few areas in the US, but the DEA has linked its appearance to Chinese manufacturers who ship the drug through Mexico and then into America, according to the New York Times.
According to reports by the Cincinnati Enquirer, authorities in Cincinnati responded to nearly 78 overdoses in a two-day span while local hospitals witnessed 174 cases of heroin overdoses in less than a week.
Recently, the Enquirer also reported the spark in overdoses that has trickled into Kentucky’s Commonwealth region. The Kentucky Public Health Department released troubling numbers during the Labor Day weekend: 15 overdoses and 12 overdose deaths. It’s still unknown whether these deaths were related to carfentanil; although, the substance was found in eight people who died from an overdose in Ohio in mid-July.
Carfentanil Threatens Opioid Reversal Drug, Naloxone
According to the New York Timesarticle, “Elephant Tranquilizer Could Be Linked to Wave of Heroin Overdoses in Midwest,” one of the main indicators that someone is overdosing on carfentanil is the amount of naloxone needed to help the patient.
Usually, one dose of the nasal spray is enough to treat a heroin overdose, but in the case of synthetic opioid overdoses, paramedics or police officers usually have to administer at least three or four doses before the patient starts breathing again.
Police Chief Bill Abbott said in the article that other telltale signs of the substance were shallow breathing, along with the person’s lips turning blue.
Police officers in Cincinnati have even taken their own precautions in fear of accidentally ingesting a tiny speck of the potent drug. They carry personal naloxone sprays to protect against a potential overdose.
Still, authorities say the increase in deaths has little to no effect on heroin addicts abusing synthetic opioids, especially the ones that are easily accessible like fentanyl.
“You don’t have to wait for a poppy plant to mature when you can just hire a chemist and develop some of these substitutes for heroin in a back-alley chemist lab,” said Lt. Tom Fallon of the Hamilton County Heroin Task Force in the article.
Midwest Authorities Respond to ‘Bad Batch’ of Drugs Affecting Region
Though authorities across the Midwest are still stumped by the prevalence of the sedative, there have been breakthroughs in finding the source responsible for the deaths during past summer spikes in overdoses.
In July, Ohio police arrested Rayshon Alexander, 36, in connection to a batch of carfentanil he sold to users trying to buy heroin, which authorities believed caused 11 overdoses and two deaths, according to the Dispatch. Alexander has been charged with murder, 10 counts of corrupting another with drugs, and eight counts of drug trafficking.
Another preventative measure that officers are implementing is treatment. In Ohio and other states affected by the drug, addicts who police responded to during an overdose are being transported to drug treatment centers by drug specialists.
In Cincinnati, the alarming drug problem has been related to the lack of funding for the city’s only publicly funded treatment center.
Nan Franks, the executive director of the Addiction Council Services in Cincinnati, told the New York Times that drugs are becoming cheaper and more easily accessible as bed space and funding for treatment is getting scarce.
Yet, local officers and addiction specialists are advocating for treatment among the growing population of heroin addicts.
As police officers arrived at Hatmaker’s home to take him to treatment five days after his overdose, the past four years of his experience with addiction culminated with a grim reality.
“I’m tired of this,” he said in the article. “I’m tired of overdosing; I’m tired of this life.”
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