Fentanyl overdoses increase in Madison


MADISON — Fentanyl overdoses are on the rise here with seven in a recent three-week period, a growing epidemic that’s cutting across socio-economic lines countywide, law enforcement officials say. 

A man found unresponsive in the parking lot of a Madison business on Feb. 22 eventually died from a fentanyl overdose, but the overdoses are happening west of I-55 in quiet, affluent posh developments sometimes to unsuspecting people who thought they were taking something else.

Madison County Coroner Alex Breland confirmed fentanyl deaths have spiked, but said he does not keep statistics and referred questions to law enforcement.

Law enforcement officials are confirming the same rise in fentanyl overdoses and deaths and their warnings are strong.

“It has become really common in a lot of the recent overdoses,” said Assistant Madison police Chief Robert Sanders.

Madison has seen an increase in fentanyl usage and arrests in recent years, and in the past three months the department has recorded several overdoses in addition to the fatal overdose in February.

“I know there was a stretch there where we ran about seven overdoses in a three-week period,” Sanders said.

Likewise, Ridgeland has seen a recent uptick in fentanyl overdoses, said Lt. Brian Myers, investigations commander for the Ridgeland Police Department.

“We have had a few overdoses in the past few weeks,” Myers said. 

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has been in medical use since the 1960s as a powerful pain-relieving medication typically prescribed to advanced cancer patients.

“It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states. “It is prescribed in the form of transdermal patches or lozenges and can be diverted for misuse and abuse in the United States.”

Most of the cases of fentanyl abuse that have led to an increase in overdoses and deaths nationwide are linked to illegally made fentanyl, according to the CDC.

“It is sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect,” the CDC states. “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.”

Where does fentanyl come from?

Fentanyl is at the heart of the nation’s opioid crisis and in a March 21, 2017, Congressional hearing “Fentanyl: The Next Wave of the Opioid Crisis” before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, then-U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn., reported much of the illegally produced fentanyl was coming into the United States from China and other countries.

“China is the primary source of fentanyl, and there are thousands of labs making illicit pure fentanyl as well as the source of ingredients or precursors needed to manufacture fentanyl,” Murphy said.

“Traffickers ship these ingredients to secret labs in Mexico run by drug cartels and then smuggle pounds of fentanyl over the Southwest border through our porous borders, launching it  through catapults or drones and into the U.S. Chinese labs are also a primary source for fentanyl ordered on the open internet and on the dark web.”

Fentanyl is often masked in other drugs

Many people who are abusing fentanyl do not even know they are abusing the drug as it is frequently used in the counterfeit production of other pill-form drugs made and sold on the black market, said Capt. Tommy Jones of the Madison County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Division

“There are so many counterfeit drugs people are buying off the street,” Jones said. “You might think you are getting hydrocodone or think you are buying Xanax and at the end of the day that pill has some amount of fentanyl and you are not really knowing how much.”

Jones said the Madison County Sheriff’s Office has been confiscating such counterfeit pills in drug busts in the area for years.

“We hit a house and recovered over 1,000 pills,” Jones said. “Whether it be Xanax, hydrocodone, none of the pills tested positive for what they appeared to be. They were either fentanyl and heroin or just fentanyl or just heroin in it but it wasn’t what it was advertised to be or supposed to be. None of those pills had any of that in them.”

Jones said the pills were stamped out in a clandestine lab and a suspect is currently facing charges of distributing fentanyl.

Illegally made fentanyl is easy to acquire through the black market, Jones said, adding it can be ordered online and shipped by various means such as via the United States Postal Service, FedEx, UPS or driven in by people.

Then, the fentanyl can be used to boost the volume and/or the potency of other drugs such as heroin, Xanax, hydrocodone or whatever pill the illegal manufacturers are making for the black market.

“Whatever pill there is, we’ve seen them with fentanyl in them,” Jones said. “You may have a person who is used to taking a whole hydrocodone pill at one time every day, and he may go buy a hydrocodone pill off the street. It may have a high concentrate of fentanyl in it and where he is used to taking one pill that lasts him eight hours that one pill may be his last pill.”

Myers said most of the fentanyl cases they have seen in Ridgeland were also due to people thinking they were taking oxycodone or something else from the black market but actually contained mostly fentanyl.

“We have seen an uptick in some of our counterfeit substances on the street such as people are trying to buy oxycodone and it turns out to be some mixture of fentanyl and other substances instead which is deadly,” Myers said.

Myers said fentanyl has been a problem in Ridgeland for a few years, and he would classify fentanyl as an epidemic tied to the larger nationwide opioid crisis.

Fortunately, Ridgeland and other law enforcement officers in Madison County carry Narcan, a drug that can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose if it is administered in time, which has saved lives in Ridgeland, Myers said. 

“We have had to Narcan a few people,” Myers said. “Narcan has actually saved multiple lives in Ridgeland since it was made available to us, I don’t remember exactly when we got out hands on that for the first time, but it has been quite useful.”

Never know how much you get

Jones said illegal manufacturers cannot accurately measure the dosages contained in each pill and some pills may not contain much fentanyl while others may contain a lethal dose.

Sanders concurred and said the problem can be further complicated.

“Fentanyl is used in the medical field but then you have what is called carfentanil,” Sanders said. “Carfentanil is actually an elephant tranquilizer so what happens is whenever they are mixing this with the fentanyl, sometimes it may be the carfentanil, which is like 1,000 times stronger than the fentanyl.”

Jones said anyone can become addicted to pills. Recent fentanyl cases have included teenagers abusing recreational drugs and older people who may have become addicted to prescription opioids and can no longer get a prescription so are buying counterfeit pills off the street.

“In these counterfeit pills the dosage units are not exact,” Sanders said. “So when someone buys one of these pills they go, ‘I’m going to take half the pill.’ Well in that half, it may be several times stronger than they anticipate and that is where we are seeing the deaths.”

Myers said the fentanyl cases in Ridgeland have mostly involved younger people to middle aged people purchasing black market pills for recreational use.

“They are paying about $25 a pill for it,” Myers said. “They think they are going to be able to take a pill and then go out to the bar and have a few drinks and that’s not the case. Just as soon as they get it in their system they are dropping out. The pills are scored just like the real pills. They look like they came from the pharmacy but they are actually laced with fentanyl.”

Sanders said he anticipates the fentanyl problem will only get worse and pointed to an emerging trend in Arizona and other states where people are purchasing counterfeit M-30 pills, which are made to look like an oxycodone pill.

“They don’t even make it (the real M30) anymore, and they call it ‘Mexican Oxys,’” Sanders said. “We are starting to see those in the Jackson Metro area.”

Jones said it is not always easy to discern whether someone you know or love may be abusing drugs, particularly pills.

“Be aware of your family members the best you can and try to be involved,” Jones said. “Don’t be scared to ask questions.”

Myers advises people not to take any pills unless they are prescribed to you and you get them from a pharmacy.

“If you don’t know where those pills came from when you get your hands on them, don’t take them,” Myers said. 

“Don’t put them in your body unless you know they came from a pharmacy. That’s the key to it all. If you find these pills somewhere, they belong to someone else, don’t use them. If you have a prescription for the pills, use the pills of course if you need them. 

“If you don’t know where they came from, don’t touch them. If you touch them you need to wash your hands immediately. If they are laced with fentanyl, it could go through your skin.”

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