How Carfentanil Wound Up In The Heroin Supply

By Kelly Burch 11/04/16

The opiate is many times more powerful than heroin, and is only a click away. 

How Carfentanil Wound Up In The Heroin Supply
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Three months ago, many first responders and public health officials had never heard of carfentanil. Now, the animal tranquilizer so powerful that it is banned during wars, has found its way onto American streets, and is causing hundreds of deaths. 

Carfentanil is supposed to be used as an animal tranquilizer on large beasts like elephant and rhinos. However, some drug users have begun injecting it.

"There's no human use for carfentanil," Keith Martin, head of the Cleveland, Ohio office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told Cleveland Scene. “None." 

"And even when they use carfentanil for [sedating large animals], it's used in small doses," Martin added. "And it's not always guaranteed that they'll be able to bring that animal back to life. For someone to be putting into their body or their system carfentanil, knowing that it can possibly kill a large animal — I mean, it's almost like playing Russian roulette.”

Carfentanil is the most powerful commercial opioid in the world, and is even forbidden in use in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention. In 2002, gaseous carfentanil was used by Russian officials in a theater where Chechen terrorists had taken 850 hostages. The gas killed all of the terrorists and 133 of the hostages, despite efforts to save hostages by administering naloxone, the opioid reversal drug. Given its immense power, even the U.S. Department of Defense has considered carfentanil a dangerous weapon. 

Carfentanil is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl, which has already caused thousands of overdose deaths around the country. It is so potent that first responders have had to wear protective gloves and masks because just a grain-sized amount can kill a person, even through contact with the skin. That potency is exactly what makes the drug so appealing to dealers, who cut heroin with a tiny amount to boost profits.

The drug is even more appealing to dealers because it can be ordered cheaply from China, where it is produced in laboratories and shipped to consumers in the United States over the web. This year, the Associated Press contacted Chinese suppliers and confirmed how easy it was to buy carfentanil

"We can supply carfentanil ... for sure," a saleswoman from Jilin Tely Import and Export Co. wrote to reporters in a September email. "And it's one of our hot sales product.”

Ohio has arguably been the state hardest hit by the new opioid trend. After a rash of overdoses in August, Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco theorized that the area, including Cincinnati, was being used as a testing ground for carfentanil. 

"The way this was carried out in our communities in the region brought up a lot of fears ... that our community was being used as a test tube,” she said after 174 people overdosed during a six-day period. During that time, first responders learned just how deadly carfentanil is. 

“We have been receiving reports from some of our colleagues in the healthcare systems that people have had to be put on IVs of naloxone just to keep them and bring them back,” Hamilton County assistant health commissioner Craig Davidson told WCPO in August. “The carfentanil is that strong that, again, one, two or (even) three doses sometimes is not enough.”

However, Ohio is not alone. Carfentanil has been linked to 19 deaths near Detroit, and other deaths in Louisville, Kentucky and Alberta, Canada.

Before September, Ohio officials could not confirm deaths associated with carfentanil, because they had no sample to test against. They ultimately secured a sample from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and have begun retroactively testing overdose victims to see just how widespread the epidemic is. 

Martin, the DEA agent, said he has never seen a drug situation this bad during his 22 years with the agency. "I've not seen anything like I'm seeing today ... I hate to be doom and gloom, but that's my world right now."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.