Fentanyl Sold as Cocaine Killed Unsuspecting Drug Users in New Haven

By Zachary Siegel 02/06/17

A CDC report pinpoints the potent synthetic opioid as the cause of last summer's overdose outbreak in New Haven.

Hand holding a baggie.

Last June, drug users in New Haven, Connecticut purchased a white powder they thought was cocaine. In a span of eight hours, 12 patients overdosed and were rushed to Yale New Haven Hospital. The powder billed as cocaine turned out to be fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin. 

"What's so unusual about this situation in New Haven is that it looks as if these people were not opioid users or opioid addicts,” Dr. Raymond Isackila, an addiction specialist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center in Ohio, told ABC News

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detailing what occurred in New Haven shows how the opioid crisis is affecting non-opioid drug users. Law enforcement seizures of drugs containing fentanyl more than tripled between 2013 and 2014. A surplus of deadly fentanyl disguised as other drugs is an emerging development in the United States’ deadly opioid epidemic that shows no signs of abating. 

"It's really easy to make a synthetic opioid. Most of it is coming in from China," Dr. David Edwards, clinical chief of chronic pain services at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News. "It comes in as a powder. It's white powder and it is easily formed into pills or mixed into other things."

Fentanyl is much cheaper to manufacture than heroin. But the super potent opioid is often made in clandestine labs that yield a product of unknown potency. Sometimes the fentanyl found in U.S. markets is so potent that it even kills veteran heroin users who’ve grown tolerant to the drug. 

Had it not been for a quick response from police and public health officials armed with naloxone, many more of the 12 patients who overdosed would have died, the authors of the CDC report said. Of the 12 patients, three of them died. 

The response by health officials in New Haven included equipping paramedics with extra doses of naloxone, tracing the source of the fentanyl, issuing a public warning about the dangerous potency of the drug, and handing out naloxone to the families and friends of opioid users. 

The CDC cites this startling event as more reason to broadly distribute naloxone, the antidote that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. 

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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.