Fentanyl: Investigations into the Dangerous Drug Scene in the South Plains

By Elizabeth Hale

Lubbock police and addiction rehabilitation providers are in the midst of a battle against an extremely dangerous and deadly prescription pain medication: Fentanyl.

“The patches are so highly concentrated to push the Fentanyl through the skin, that if they break open, and get on your skin, you’re dead. If you use a heat pad, anything that’s going to increase the circulation to the skin, you’re dead,” PharmD and Professor of Pharmacy Practice and Regional Dean for Lubbock Programs Charles Seifert said.

Seifert said Fentanyl use, even when prescribed by a doctor, can have dangerous consequences.

Illicit use of the prescription opioid drug and arrests for the illegal distribution of it have grown in Lubbock.

Wes Rapaport, a former reporter for KAMC News in Lubbock, said Fentanyl caught the attention of Lubbock citizens after a large drug bust last fall.

“There was a large operation done,” Rapaport said. “The DEA came in from Washington and were involved in investigating this drug bust, and three people were arrested.”

According to the Lubbock Police Department, a large-scale drug bust conducted on October 27 by the Lubbock Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration lead to the arrest of three Lubbock residents who were charged with possession with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute Fentanyl and Furanyl Fentanyl.

According to a study done in 2015 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 3.8 million people 12 or older in the United States were current misusers of pain relievers in 2015, which represents 1.4 percent of the population. The study also noted that people who abused prescription drugs were very likely to misuse other psychotherapeutic drugs like tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives.

Seifert said the process of regulating the doses of Fentanyl given to patients is highly monitored and recipients are often given counseling on how to maintain a safe dosage once they take the prescription home. When reviewing the risks of using it for medical purposes, Seifert said it is easy to see the risk of taking Fentanyl, or anything laced with Fentanyl, illicitly.

Fentanyl patch. Photo from WebMD.

“From my understanding, there was a large batch of Fentanyl that came in through China. The heroin here comes in from Afghanistan, and there are several routes it can go through, and one of those is through China. And that heroin that’s coming in is laced with Fentanyl unknown to the users,” Seifert said.

He said this makes the heroin incredibly potent and dangerous.

According to information obtained from the Lubbock County Medical Examiner’s Office, approximately 122 people died from a drug overdose from 2014 to 2016 in Lubbock County. Fifteen of those individuals had fentanyl in their system at time of death, and six of them had a cause of death of acute Fentanyl intoxication.

Of the 15 people in Lubbock County who died, 10 were male and five female. Contrary to the belief that most drug users and overdose victims are minorities, 12 victims were Caucasian and three were Hispanic.

Seven of the victims fell between the ages of 20 and 39, and 8 were between 40 and 69. People older than 50 were more likely to die from acute fentanyl intoxication, while younger people mostly overdosed on a cocktail of drugs with Fentanyl being one of them. All of the overdoses involving Fentanyl were considered accidents.

A study done by the University of Texas School of Social Work in 2016 noted while Fentanyl abuse and misuse has usually involved skin patches, a new rouge powder started to appear in spring 2016.

The report explained that street outreach workers reported that heroin is “very strong” and may be cut with Fentanyl and that deaths involving Fentanyl powder occurred in 2016.

Fentanyl, according to Spencer Bradshaw, assistant professor of addictive disorders and recovery studies at Texas Tech, is 100 times as strong as morphine and 50 times as strong as heroin. Bradshaw said he believes just because Fentanyl is legal doesn’t mean it is any less dangerous if used the wrong way, although people may think it is less of a threat to their wellbeing.

“I do believe that society puts too much stock into the legalization of drugs. What I mean by this is that many think that if something is legal, or legal with a prescription, than it must be safe. Similarly, people may assume that prescription drugs are safe, or else they wouldn’t be prescribed. I also believe that many people would carry a greater negative stigma if they were seeking and using illicit drugs, like heroin, than they might if they are abusing prescription drugs.” Bradshaw said.

According to the study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, two million people 12 or older had a pain relief use disorder in 2015. So, overall nearly 53 percent of people who abused pain relievers in the past year developed a use disorder.

Nicolas Lopez/The Hub@TTU

Tiffany Pelt, the Lubbock Police Department public information officer, said Fentanyl users will often turn to illegal drugs when it is too difficult to find, or pay for, their drug of choice.

“Once they are addicted, they will turn to whatever drug they can afford or find that has the same effects. This is true for Fentanyl as well. Again, many people will turn to heroin because it is a cheaper option than prescription pills.” Pelt said.

U.S Representative Tim Murphy said the majority of the illegal Fentanyl comes into the United States through China, and drug cartels from Mexico.

“China is a primary source of Fentanyl and there are thousands of labs making illicit pure Fentanyl as well as the source of the ingredients or precursors needed to manufacture and all.” Murphy said.

Lubbock is not the only city in Texas dealing with an increase in fentanyl related deaths. According to the Center for Disease Control, 5,189 people in Texas died from a synthetic opioid overdose between 2014 and 2015. Nationally, the death rate of synthetic opioids rose by 72 percent from 2014 to 2015. Between 2013 and 2014, the number of drug products seized by law enforcement that contained fentanyl increased by 426 percent.

Pelt said after a large drug raid last year in Lubbock, Fentanyl distribution and overdoses have gone down, but they still believe it continues to be sold on the streets in smaller amounts. She said the Lubbock Police Department is continuing its investigation to make sure the drug does not start to become popular again in the area.

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