Was Cincinnati Used As 'Testing Ground' For Carfentanil?

By Kelly Burch 09/09/16

The concentrated nature of last month's overdose wave has left some locals speculating that the area "was being used as a test tube" for carfentanil.

Was Cincinnati Used As 'Testing Ground' For Carfentanil?
Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco has a theory Photo via Local12/YouTube

After an unprecedented 174 people overdosed on heroin during a six-day period in Cincinnati at the end of August, the Hamilton County coroner said that the spate of overdoses indicate that drug dealers were using the region as a testing site for heroin laced with the powerful opiate 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," Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco said Tuesday, according to Cincinnati.com. (Hamilton County includes Cincinnati.)

At least eight people who died since July had carfentanil in their system. The synthetic opiate is usually used on elephants and other large animals, but has increasingly been found in street heroin. 

Sammarco stressed that her statement was just a theory, but that she and forensic toxicologist Bob Topmiller thought it was likely, given the “focal nature” of the overdoses. She said that from a business perspective, it made sense that dealers would test a new product in a specific region. 

“You put your drugs out there and see what happens," she said. Otherwise, "you don't know anything about this drug with customers, you want repeat customers. You might want to know, how is law enforcement going to react? How are firefighters going to react?"

During the most recent overdose wave at the end of August, police and other emergency responders found that the opiate antidote Narcan was not working as effectively on patients, and theorized it was because the drug was laced with a stronger opiate, which was usually fentanyl until now. 

Sammarco said that if the overdose wave had occurred a year ago, there would have been many more deaths, because Narcan was not so readily available. Increasingly, emergency responders are having to use more than one dose of Narcan, the nasal spray version of naloxone, in order to save patients. 

“We have been receiving reports from some of our colleagues in the healthcare systems that people have had to be put on IVs of naxolone 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.”

This is just one way that the opiate epidemic is adding pressure to the Ohio healthcare system. There is a severe shortage of beds for people seeking detox or addiction treatment. It is estimated that in one Ohio county, there is only one treatment bed for every 207 people suffering from an opiate addiction. 

Ohio has been hit especially hard by the opiate crisis. Last year, more than 3,000 people died of drug overdoses in the state, according to the Canton Repository. Fentanyl-related deaths more than doubled in Ohio between 2014 and 2015, and accounted for more than one-third of overdose deaths. Now, it seems there will be a new opiate contributing to Ohio deaths in 2016. 

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