Rhode Island Sees Spike in Overdose Deaths

By Allison McCabe 01/23/14

While fentanyl, or a fentanyl-like drug, was found in 13 of the victims, some officials have cautioned against blaming the powerful opioid for being the culprit.

Rhode Island news conference on the deaths. Photo via

Rhode Island has seen a sudden surge in drug overdose deaths recently, according to health officials. From the beginning of the year until January 13th, twenty-two people ranging in age from 20 to 62 died from ingesting various illicit and prescription drugs.

Fentanyl, or a fentanyl-like drug (but not the acetyl fentanyl that was suspected in deaths last June), was found in the systems of 13 of the overdoses. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that is available by prescription but can also be obtained on the street. “The word on the street is that there’s bad heroin out there,” said Richard Holcomb, the director of Project Weber, a non-profit in Providence that works with addicts. “People believe that they’re shooting heroin but the substance does not look like heroin and they’re shooting it and they’re dying.” Two of the people who OD’d were Holcomb’s clients.

According to Michelle McKenzie, who has done extensive research on addiction, the rising number of overdoses is a result of the increasing restrictions on prescription drugs in Rhode Island and elsewhere in the country. “We have all these folks who are opioid addicted,” she said, “…and there is a shortage of treatment in Rhode Island.”

In a news conference last Monday, Health Director Michael D. Fine acknowledged that even though fentanyl has been showing up more frequently, “that doesn’t mean it’s the culprit. It’s essentially impossible to know, when you’ve got a mixed cocktail like this, which drug is responsible for the death.” Cocaine, benzodiazepines, methamphetamine, and carisoprodol were also detected in blood tests. Fine called the news conference in order to issue a warning to drug users and their friends and families: “People live in a certain kind of denial sometimes—that they can get high without risking death,” he said. “The thing to emphasize here is getting high is risking death.”

Craig Stenning, director of the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals appeared with Fine at the conference and urged addicts to seek treatment, noting that under the Affordable Care Act, previously uninsured people will now be covered. The health officials also advised friends of addicts to have Narcan, an over-the-counter drug that can stop an opiate overdose, on hand. Finally, people should not be afraid to call 911 when they suspect an overdose. Since the passage of the 2012 Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act, people who call for help will not be arrested or prosecuted for possession.

A local news report about the overdose deaths:

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Allison McCabe is the editor in chief of The Fix. She has written for LA Weekly, Village Voice, Junk: a literary fix, Ramshackle Review, Main Street Journal and others. Follow Allison on Twitter.