Carfentanil — a drug created to knock out elephants — is believed to be the drug behind more than 100 overdoses in three states in the past two weeks.
The drug is a chemical relative of fentanyl, a painkiller and anesthesia used in surgery. At more than 10,000 times stronger than morphine, a tiny amount can be lethal in humans. Just 2 milligrams is all that is needed to knock out a 2,000-pound elephant.
The drug is so powerful that first-responders often have to use as much as 10 times the usual amount of the overdose antidote, Narcan, to revive victims.
In Huntington, W.Va., 27 overdoses were reported within a 1.5-mile radius in just five hours on Aug. 15. One man died.
In Cincinnati, 78 overdoses were reported in a two-day period. One rescue vehicle ran out of Narcan. Jennings County in Indiana saw 14 overdoses — one fatal — on a single day, Tuesday.
On Friday, a man from Akron, Ohio, was arrested and charged with selling the drugs that caused the overdoses in Huntington. Indiana officials also have arrested a man they believe sold the drugs that caused the overdoses there.
No arrests have been made in Cincinnati, where carfentanil was found in the local heroin supply in mid-July. Cleveland health officials also have identified carfentanil in toxicology reports from overdose deaths. The drug is also suspected in 91 overdoses and eight deaths in Akron in mid-July.
Whether carfentanil has caused any overdose deaths in Palm Beach County isn’t known. It’s only been in the past month that carfentanil was added to the list of drugs tested during autopsies, said Palm Beach County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Bell.
“Overall, it really makes very little difference in my job,” said Bell, adding that testing for another analog of fentanyl is a distraction. “There are plenty of other drugs we detect.”
In 2015, fentanyl was detected in more than 100 overdose deaths in Palm Beach County, according to medical examiner records. It often is mixed with heroin, leading unsuspecting addicts to overdose.
Concern about the recent spate of overdoses prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a health alert Thursday. According to the alert, there has been a sharp increase in counterfeit pills that look identical to Oxycodone, Xanax and Norco, but contain deadly levels of fentanyl and fentanyl-related compounds or analogs, such as carfentanil and acetylfentanyl.
In July, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported hundreds of thousands of such counterfeit pills have entered the United States. Traditionally, fentanyl and its analogs have been mixed with white-powder heroin mostly found in the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast. Fentanyl-related overdoses largely have been restricted to heroin addicts in those areas.
However, the deadly counterfeit pills also threaten prescription drug addicts. The fear is that prescription drug abusers who turn to the street to find drugs when their prescriptions run out will become victims of the counterfeit pills.
Recent investigations in Ohio and Florida indicate that the increases in fentanyl-related deaths do not involve prescription fentanyl but fentanyl that is created in illicit labs. Using pill presses that can be purchased online, drug distributors press the fentanyl into pills that look nearly identical to other drugs.
Renowned musician Prince is believed to be a victim of the fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills. Pills seized inside his Paisley Park compound near Minneapolis, Minn., after his death in April were labeled as hydrocodone but actually contained fentanyl, according to published reports.
The DEA alerted police and first-responders of the danger in June, when it sent a video to all law enforcement agencies nationwide about the dangers of improperly handling the drug and its deadly consequences — especially to drug-sniffing police dogs.