Fentanyl Overdose Deaths Climb in Washington, and Cartels Are to Blame, Feds Say

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“Parro” for Borderland Beat

Fentanyl sample in pill form, as shown by US authorities

Fentanyl has played a role in the deaths of hundreds of Washingtonians in recent years, including two brothers — a 30-year-old computer programmer from Pasco and a 25-year-old construction worker. 

“It seems like every time when we have a drug overdose death there is going to be one or two more,” said Curtis McGary, the Franklin County Coroner. “It seems like there is a bad batch of drugs coming through.”

Drug overdose deaths increased by 38% in Washington in the first half of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019, a February release from the Department of Health said.

Of the 835 drug overdose deaths that occurred in the first six months of 2020, 309 of them involved fentanyl, according to the release. Most drug deaths involved multiple substances. In the first six months of 2019 there were 607 overdose deaths. Fentanyl was involved in 137 of those fatalities, the release said.

WHAT IS FENTANYL? 

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is “typically used to treat advanced cancer pain,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine,” the CDC says.

“It is sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect. It is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product — with or without the user’s knowledge — to increase its euphoric effects.”

Fentanyl is often sold in Washington as counterfeit prescription opioid pills, sometimes with “M30” or “A215” imprinted on them, as well as in powders and black tar heroin, the Department of Health said. If it is a legitimate prescription, it will likely come in the form of a transdermal patch or lozenge, according to the CDC.

WHAT’S GOING ON? 

Washington is one of many states suffering from a rise in fentanyl-related overdose deaths, a news release from UW Medicine says. Fentanyl overdose deaths are a problem across the country, especially in the Great Lakes and Northeast regions of the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment released Tuesday.

While the supply of fentanyl coming directly from China has been decreasing since at least 2019, Mexican drug cartels have been increasingly contributing to the supply in the U.S. market, the assessment said.

“Mexican [transnational criminal organizations] will almost certainly have the greatest impact on the fentanyl market in the [U.S.] for the near future because of these organizations’ increased capacity and capabilities for fentanyl production, adaptations to restriction on precursor chemicals and existing drug trafficking infrastructure in the [U.S.],” the assessment said.

Overdose deaths have also been increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. saw the “highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period,” which ended in May, the CDC said in a December news release.

“We know that a person is more likely to die of an overdose if they are alone. Everyone had more time alone last year,” Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist with the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in the release from UW Medicine.

“It’s a reasonable theory that the overdoses would leap with a drug in high supply … on top of that the isolation and stress of a pandemic. What’s interesting, though, is that we didn’t see that same sharp increase with heroin and pharmaceutical opioids — just fentanyl.”

A GROWING PROBLEM 

The DEA predicts fentanyl and other synthetic opioids will “continue to contribute to high numbers of drug overdose deaths in … the near term, as fentanyl availability … continues to persist.” Travel restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border due to the pandemic will likely impact the supply, the assessment said.

Last month, three people were arrested on charges of distributing thousands of fentanyl pills in Whatcom County, according to a news release from the Department of Justice’s Western District of Washington. More than 5,000 fentanyl pills were seized on Feb. 23 and thousands more pills, along with heroin and meth, were seized during the course of the federal investigation.

“This undercover investigation revealed these defendants were responsible for the distribution of thousands of pills tainted with potentially deadly fentanyl,” Brian Moran, U.S. attorney, said in the release.

“A recent analysis by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office showed a significant drop in overdose deaths following large law enforcement seizures in federal drug cases.” 

Source: The News Tribune


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