By Josh Sanburn
A drug so powerful that it’s used to sedate elephants is finding a new, illicit use laced into heroin, potentially contributing to hundreds of overdoses in the last several weeks.
The drug, called Carfentanil, is a synthetic opioid so strong that just a few granules the size of grains of table salt can be lethal. Since mid-August, roughly 300 people in at least four states have overdosed on heroin linked to Carfentanil and the less powerful compound fentanyl.
One of the hardest-hit spots was Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati, where on a single day in late August there were 48 heroin overdoses and two deaths. From Aug. 15 to Sept. 4, the Drug Enforcement Administration has recorded 208 overdoses, and local officials say at least eight deaths in the Cincinnati area have been linked to Carfentanil.
“The last 10 days have been unprecedented,” says Dennis Deters, a Hamilton County commissioner and chairman of the county’s heroin coalition.
Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, saw 52 overdose deaths in August with at least two from Carfentanil, the most fatalities related to heroin and fentanyl the county has ever seen. In Akron, authorities have reported more than 100 overdoses this year and 24 on last Friday alone. And officials in Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky have seen similar overdose spikes in the last month. The problem was highlighted in a graphic photo released by police in East Liverpool, Ohio, of an overdosed couple unresponsive in their car while a 4-year-old boy sat in the back.
The outbreak across the Midwest and the Appalachian region has raised a number of questions about the troubling synthetic, how it has made its way into the U.S., and what’s being done to stop it.