Overdose deaths set record in Trumbull County

An elephant tranquilizer and a Soviet-era warfare agent caused the death of five people out of at least 98 who died from accidental drug overdoses in 2016, according to statistics from the Trumbull County Coroner’s Office.

Carfentanil, the tranquilizer, is 100 times more powerful than heroin; and 3-methylfentanyl, the warfare agent, is 6,000 times more powerful than morphine, according to Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk.

The presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, was present or solely responsible for the deaths of many more people in 2016 than in 2015, when heroin was the primary driver of accidental overdose deaths.

In 2015, when 87 people died from accidental drug overdoses, fentanyl was the sole cause in the deaths of eight people. In 2016, it was in 35 cases and present in 62 of the cases.

“Unlike previous opioid epidemics, including a temporary spike in U.S. fentanyl use in 2006 that was traced to a single clandestine lab in Mexico, fentanyl sold in the United States is now being produced by individual distributors across the country,” a report from the U.S.- China Economic and Security Review Commission released this month states.

China is the main supplier, sending it into the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the report states. Fentanyl is so potent that it only requires a milligram for a single use, the report states. Two milligrams, about two grains of salt, can kill a person. And because it only costs $810 to make 25 grams, it is appealing to users and dealers alike.

“The combination of the drug’s potency and affordability has made fentanyl an increasingly common drug in the United States, often mixed with heroin or cocaine — either intentionally or without the user’s knowledge — to increase its euphoric effects,” the report states.

Over 900 pounds of the stuff has been seized by law enforcement agencies in Ohio between 2013 and 2015, the report states, putting Ohio in the highest category,

The police chief in Niles, which has the second-highest concentration of overdose deaths in the county, said when users buy heroin off the streets these days, they are getting something much different from what was sold when he started his career in law enforcement, Chief Jay Holland said.

“When I first started, it was never mixed. Now, the dealers are trying to maximize their profits and it is causing a lot more people to fall out. They don’t know what the bag is laced with and it is killing them,” Holland said.

Lab testing of the drugs the department buys from dealers show it, Holland said.

But lately those lab results, which law enforcement agencies need in order to build their cases against dealers, is taking longer and longer to come back from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, said Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Orr, commander of the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task.

“When we make controlled buys, we test everything. A lot of it is 100 percent fentanyl now,” Orr said. “It used to take two to three weeks to get results, it was a quick turn around. Now it can take eight. We still have samples from November that we still don’t have back. BCI is burdened by all of requests. And that hinders prosecution.”

Holland said because the department is no longer charging people after an overdose, addicted users are less likely to go through the justice system and connect with a treatment program because of their arrest.

“The good Samaritan law ties our hands a little and I don’t necessarily agree with the tenent. Because sometimes when we charge them, it gets them into a life changing program. But when they get Narcan, they can go from the hospital to a drug house in an hour,” Holland said.

Holland and Orr said their agencies will continue investigating overdose deaths in ways that could lead to manslaughter charges for dealers.

The two worked together to bring charges against Anton Perry, 22, last month in connection to the death of Jamie Deutsch, who was pregnant when she was found dead in her Niles home Oct. 22.

Orr said the key is to act fast, and one of the only ways to pursue charges is to use the contacts in the victim’s phone. In the Deutsch case, the officers used her phone to text the person who sold her drugs and set up controlled buys.

Collaboration between departments is another key, Holland and Orr said. Many times a drug investigation crosses jurisdictional lines, but TAG has more reach and more dollars to make the controlled buys that lead to charges.

And, Orr said even as the presence of fentanyl in the area continues to rise, another drug is coming back in a bad way.

Methamphetamine is making an appearance in the area, Orr said. It can be even cheaper than opioids, and doesn’t cause withdrawal symptoms when it isn’t being used.

“And this stuff isn’t coming from your backyard, homegrown meth labs. The stuff we are seeing is the real crystal stuff, coming from cartels in Mexico,” Orr said.

Mixing uppers and downers, like opiods with meth or cocaine, known as “speedballing,” is particularly dangerous, Orr said. Of the 37 people who died in 2016 from a combination of multiple drugs, 27 had an opioid with cocaine or a cocaine by-product in their system.

If the drugs weren’t in such high demand, dealers would find somewhere else to peddle them, Orr said. Solving the area’s addiction problem is the only way to curtail the flow of drugs into the region, he said.

rfox@tribtoday.com

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