Cocaine Laced With Fentanyl Is Hitting New York Hard, Health Department Says

By Zachary Siegel 06/07/17

It is unclear whether there is a contaminated cocaine supply or users are intentionally mixing the two drugs in a speedball.  

Two men exchanging cash for a baggie filled with a white powder substance

A report by the New York City Health Department revealed that during 2016, the city saw a steep rise in fatal overdoses involving both illicit fentanyl and cocaine, without the presence of heroin. 

Some 1,300 people in New York City died of a drug overdose during 2016. Thirty-seven percent of those deaths curiously involved only cocaine and fentanyl, a jump from 11% the previous year, according to a department of health press release

It remains unclear whether cocaine laced with fentanyl was the culprit. Users could intentionally mix illicit fentanyl with cocaine, known as a speedball. But the trend has public health officials concerned because even small amounts of illicit fentanyl (the size of a grain of salt) can kill consumers both with and without tolerances to opioids. 

The finding prompted the department to call on health providers to alert their patients that cocaine laced with illicit fentanyl, a potent opioid known to be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, is on the streets. 

"All New Yorkers who use drugs, even if only occasionally, should know their drugs may be mixed with fentanyl," Dr. Mary T. Bassett, NYC's health commissioner, said in the press release, entitled “Health Department Warns New Yorkers About Cocaine Laced with Fentanyl; Occasional Users at High Risk of Overdose.” 

“The Health Department also issued a Health Advisory to 40,000 medical professionals with information on how to educate patients, particularly those who may use cocaine occasionally, about the increased overdose risk posed by fentanyl,” according to the press release. 

New York is the most recent city to suggest that cocaine is being laced with illicit fentanyl. The Fix reported on similar trends in New Haven, Connecticut and Cleveland. What happened in New Haven was so peculiar, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used the incident as a case study to understand how illicit fentanyl, a depressant with powerful analgesic properties, finds its way into batches of cocaine, a stimulant. 

The health department urged casual drug users to obtain naloxone, an overdose reversal drug, at any of the over 740 pharmacies carrying the lifesaving drug throughout the city—including Walgreens, Duane Reade, Rite Aid, and CVS. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.