Traces of fentanyl, a powerful opioid that’s caused thousands of deaths across the country, are beginning to appear more frequently in New Mexico. In recent years, the state experienced a reduction in drug overdose deaths. But experts knew things would become more difficult if fentanyl made its way to the state.
“For the longest time, we thought it would take a lot longer to reach New Mexico,” Santa Fe Police Department Detective Michael McCluskey told the Albuquerque Journal. “We thought there was no way people were going to do that, and it rocked this community.”
In 2016, 22 people in New Mexico died from fentanyl overdoses, according to the Albuquerque Journal. At least 20 of the people who died are believed to have purchased counterfeit pills that were mislabeled. The pills were disguised as oxycodone, but they actually contained fentanyl, according to a DEA investigation.
Oxycodone is similar in strength to morphine, and fentanyl is about 100 times stronger than morphine. Counterfeit fentanyl pills have killed people across the country.
“Death pills” were discovered in Central Florida in April 2016. Mislabeled pills were found in Prince’s home after the singer died from an overdose. A medical examiner report later revealed that fentanyl caused Prince’s death.
But the drug didn’t appear in New Mexico, a state that once led the country in drug overdose deaths, until 2015. That year, DEA agents confiscated 3 kilograms of fentanyl from a drug trafficker passing through the state on the way to New York City.
Now, Santa Fe detectives are saying fentanyl has appeared in their city. The first confirmed trace of fentanyl reportedly appeared in Santa Fe in 2016. Months later, a person died of a fentanyl overdose in the state’s capital. A police sergeant said the person thought the drug contained only heroin.
In 2015, natural and semisynthetic opioids, such as morphine and oxycodone, caused 160 deaths in New Mexico. That was down from 223 in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Local experts believe the state’s robust prescription drug monitoring program contributed to a reduction in prescription opioid deaths.
The state’s biggest opioid problem became heroin, which caused an increasing number of opioid deaths in 2014 and 2015. Synthetic opioid deaths, which are driven largely by fentanyl, accounted for about 10 percent of all opioid deaths in New Mexico in 2015.
If fentanyl becomes more widely available, those numbers will likely change.
Fentanyl outbreaks have devastated communities across the country. Deaths from synthetic opioids excluding methadone in Ohio grew from 590 in 2014 to 1,234 in 2015. During the same time frame, deaths from synthetic opioids other than methadone in Massachusetts increased from 453 to 949.
“By far on the East Coast, the biggest portion of deaths is illicitly manufactured fentanyl,” New Mexico epidemiologist Michael Landen told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “Methamphetamine is still a much bigger factor in the West.”
Opioids receive an abundance of media attention, but crystal meth is still a major concern in New Mexico. Deaths involving meth more than doubled between 2009 and 2014, according to a report from the New Mexico Health Department.
The increase in meth use may be linked to the increase in opioid use.
New Mexico law enforcement officers reported that people who use fentanyl also use crystal meth to reverse the effects of the drug. Opioids are depressants that cause relaxation and drowsiness. In high doses, they can make people lose consciousness and stop breathing.
Meth is a stimulant, and many people who use drugs take stimulants to bounce back from the effects of depressants. The dangerous mixture strains the heart and other vital organs.
Of the 20 fentanyl overdose victims who may have bought counterfeit pills in New Mexico last year, 11 had meth in their system, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
So far, the fentanyl appearances in New Mexico seem to be limited to isolated incidents. If law enforcement can keep drug traffickers from bringing fentanyl to the state, they may be able to continue to save lives and reduce the impact of drug addiction in New Mexico.