Fentanyl: The killer painkillerIvy Madziva
Fentanyl: The killer painkiller.
There were so many times Toni Randall was almost too scared to open her son Eli’s bedroom door. “I was terrified of what I would find,” she said.
When Eli didn’t come down for breakfast or didn’t show up on time, Toni feared the worst.
That was during the “worst times”; when Eli was a regular heroin user.
By May this year, though, Eli was clean. He had a new job, a new girlfriend and had paid back his debts. “Everything was perfect,” said Toni.
She bounced up the steps to his bedroom that morning: “It never, ever occurred to me what I would find.”
What she found was Eli slumped on his bed, his head resting on the bedside table, and cold to the touch.
She screamed for her husband. As she administered a shot of NARCAN, the medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, her husband took a photograph of the moment.
They would show Eli later, he thought, how close he had come to death.
In fact, it was already too late. Eli was dead at 22.
Toni didn’t know that Eli had gone to the city that week. What he bought, thinking it was heroin, turned out to be the drug responsible for the latest wave of America’s opioid crisis.
“The tiniest drop” of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, 50 times stronger than heroin, was enough to kill him.
“That was what he had in the system. He didn’t know. He had no clue what he had. He had no intention of leaving us.”
More than 31,000 Americans died from overdoses of fentanyl last year.
Officials in the US say no drug in history has left such a “body count”.
Eli lived in Pocahontas in Illinois, a 40-minute drive from the city of St Louis, one of the places seeing the worst of the fentanyl crisis.
A lot of the fentanyl reaching addicts in the big mid-western cities like Chicago, Detroit and St Louis is arriving on a supply line direct from America’s southern border.
Cartels in Mexico have hijacked the fentanyl crisis, mixing an illicit version of the opioid in makeshift laboratories and flooded the US with it. It comes in powder form or disguised as legitimate painkilling pills.
US border patrols and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are waging a war on smugglers but admit they are fighting a losing battle.
Doug Coleman, the DEA’s special agent in charge in Arizona, said: “You’re talking about a substance that’s so powerful that a kilogram of it could potentially make 500,000 pills. That could kill 250,000 or 300,000 Americans.
“That’s a really small amount of the stuff that comes across and it’s very difficult to detect.”
The pills are so deadly because those mixing them often have no idea how much actual fentanyl is being pressed into each one.
The special agent added: “Two milligrams you might survive, five milligrams you definitely won’t. People are playing Russian roulette with their lives.”
Fentanyl was developed as a medicine to help relieve severe ongoing pain (such as that brought on by cancer)
Unlike heroin, fentanyl is synthesized in laboratories entirely from chemicals and requires no plant material to produce
Illicitly produced fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances (FRS) are manufactured in China and Mexico
While often mixed with heroin, it is increasingly common for fentanyl to be mixed with adulterants and sold as heroin
Fentanyl is killing people across the social spectrum: addicts looking for a new high, unsuspecting teenagers popping pills at parties, people in chronic pain looking for cheap opioid relief. The strength of the drug is the game-changer.
The DEA invited Sky News to witness the conclusion of a months-long operation to catch fentanyl traffickers.
In a supermarket car park on a baking hot lunchtime in Phoenix in Arizona, two men pulled up in a car expecting to meet the buyer who had requested 10,000 fentanyl pills.
Instead, heavily armed officers from the DEA’s special response team swooped on them. The men had a loaded and cocked handgun and the 10,000 fentanyl pills.
When officers smashed in the front door of a “stash house” nearby, they found a stack of assault weapons and more fentanyl pills.
Special Agent Coleman said each of those pills would have sold for $25 on the street – hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of lives at risk.
“We, as a society, have over-prescribed prescription medications in the past and we’ve developed an entire generation of people addicted to opiates,” he said.
“That’s led to an increase in heroin addiction and subsequently an increase in fentanyl use.”
Back in St Louis, volunteers now hand out NARCAN on the streets, in the hope that users can save themselves or others from an opioid overdose. Most people who overdose do survive.
Miles Hoffman, who says it took him 20 attempts to beat his own addiction, wants to give back to the community.
“Folks have turned their backs on people using fentanyl and that’s when they need human connection the most,” said Mr Hoffman.
He works with the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery. They have bought a retired ambulance to take help out to those in the community.
Its executive director is also a recovering addict. Chad Sabora says the solutions to the crisis rest with government.
“We have to look at other countries that have reversed epidemics,” Mr Sabora told Sky News.
“None of those countries use the tactics we’re talking about in the States. They decriminalised, they created more access to treatment.
“They did the opposite of what our government right now is proposing and if we continue down this path of prohibition, arrest, criminalisation, things will continue to get worse.”
Users who come to the centre for help do not appear hopeful.
Lisa told us: “I don’t think it is ever going to stop. I wish it would but it is too big. It is everywhere and it is a horrible thing.”
The fentanyl epidemic has been described as the third wave of America’s opioid crisis following the explosion in addiction to prescription painkillers and then heroin.
Toni Randall wants her son Eli’s story to act as a warning to others.
“His ultimate goal was to be healthy enough to help someone else,” she said. “On 18 November 2018 he tweeted a post that said: “Some day my story will inspire someone else to do better for themselves.
“That’s what myself and my family are trying to do to help someone else do better for themselves.”
Those trying to stem the flow of drugs see the reality in a country that is home to 5% of the world’s population but which uses 85% of its opioids.
“As long as we have people that want these products, somebody will try to meet that demand,” said Doug Coleman.
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