An epidemic that started with prescription pills and heroin is now being fueled by an even deadlier drug.
It’s called illicit fentanyl, a white powder that can easily be mixed into other drugs. It’s 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Fentanyl deaths reached an all time high in Massachusetts last year, more than doubling the number of heroin deaths. Fentanyl was present in 90% of toxicology reports of opioid-related deaths, in the second quarter of 2018
The Drug Enforcement Agency ranked Massachusetts third highest in the country for deadly fentanyl overdoses, behind New Hampshire and West Virginia, in their latest Drug Trends report.
The 22News I-Team went to Boston to talk to U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling and DEA Special Agent-in-Charge Brian Boyle: both on the front lines of the epidemic.
Attorney Lelling told the I-Team fentanyl is the biggest threat they face. “A few years ago, seizing one kilo of fentanyl would have been newsworthy, it would have been a big deal, and now it’s not, now seizing 10 to 20 is a big deal.”
Agent Boyle said there’s a couple of reasons why fentanyl has suddenly grown in popularity. It’s cheap for criminal organizations to make, and unlike heroin, it’s made in a lab, which means they don’t have to worry about a growing season.
Agent Boyle said a majority of the time, it’s not manufactured in the U.S. “The production of it is in Mexico, so the Mexicans have a handle on that. Some of the fentanlyl is coming in from China as well.”
Once it’s trafficked into the U.S., fentanyl is funnelled into major metropolitan cities, like New York. Criminal organizations then mix it with heroin or cocaine, package it, and distirbute it throughout the country.
Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni told the I-Team, highways like I-91 and I-90 have made our region a hub for drug distribution. “We are in a geographic location with 91 that operates north and south, and the Mass Pike that operates east and west, and it makes it very accessible for folks who are looking to purchase drugs from north of us or west of us.”
The DA’s Office works side by side with the DEA and state police to stop the flow of drugs, and they’ve made a lot of progress over the past year.
Between September and November of 2018, the DEA seized more than 160 lbs of fentanyl in Massachusetts.
Attorney Lelling told the I-Team, that also signifies how widespread the problem is. “It’s a double edged sword. On one hand, it’s a tremendous success for us and the DEA to seize fentanyl in those quantities, but on the other hand, unless someone thinks we’re seizing every single kilo, which I’m sure we’re not, it’s an indicator of the scope of the problem.”
The U.S. government recently reached an agreement with the Chinese government to impose new regulations on the chemicals used to make fentanyl, to prevent the drug from being smuggled into the U.S. The Drug Enforcement Agency called it a temporary solution.
Confirmed Opioid Overdose Deaths in 2017:
Source: Massachusetts Department of Public Health
- Hampden County – 113
- Hampshire County – 28
- Franklin County – 9
- Berkshire County – 27