Fentanyl has killed thousands of people in Ohio. The powerful opioid is responsible for a growing wave of death and harm that has swept over the state during the 2010s. The Ohio Department of Health blames fentanyl and its cousin, carfentanil, for the increasing fatality of the state’s illicit drug supply. Ohio is the epicenter of fentanyl misuse in the United States. In 2016, Ohio’s crime labs detected more fentanyl mixed into illegal drug seizures than in any other state.
In 2015, fentanyl deaths in Ohio more than doubled.
Drug overdose deaths in Ohio went up every year but one between 2004 and 2016. In 2016, 4,050 Ohioans were killed by drug overdose. A large majority of those people — 2,357 people, or 58.1 percent of the Ohioans killed by drugs that year — had overdosed on fentanyl, carfentanil, or fentanyl mixed with other drugs.
Fentanyl was such an uncommon cause of death that the state department of health didn’t even track fentanyl death statistics until 2007. It killed between 65 and 85 people every year between 2007 and 2013. Then, in 2014, the drug killed more than 500 Ohioans. In 2015, fentanyl deaths in Ohio more than doubled, reaching 1,155. That number doubled again in 2016.
The other opioids behind Ohio’s drug epidemic are well known. Prescription opioid painkillers and heroin have been misused for decades. Fentanyl is much, much more powerful than other opioid painkillers or heroin. It is used to relieve patients’ suffering from extreme pain caused by things like third-degree burns and late-stage cancer. Pure heroin is fatal to most people in a 30 milligram dose. Pure fentanyl kills at 3 milligrams — that’s about one-half of a teaspoon.
Drug dealers introduced fentanyl into the black market opioid trade to cut costs. Fentanyl is cheaper and easier to produce than heroin. Fentanyl is produced legally on an industrial scale for use in hospitals and clinics. Organized crime groups like drug cartels can easily buy processed fentanyl or its ingredients in industrialized developing countries such as China or Mexico. It’s mixed into heroin shipments there, or drug dealers will mix them together closer to the market.
Ohio’s heroin dealers have started experimenting with other cutting agents for their heroin supply. One is carfentanil, an opioid that is used to subdue large animals, such as horses and elephants.
Carfentanil is even more potent, and therefore more dangerous, than fentanyl. Either drug can cause an overdose if someone so much as touches or inhales it by accident.
That means that carfentanil and fentanyl are dangerous to first responders. Patrolman Chris Green, of East Liverpool, accidentally ingested a small amount of fentanyl after he searched the car of suspected drug dealers. He simply brushed powdered fentanyl off his uniform. He overdosed an hour later. Fortunately, he was at his station when the overdose symptoms started, and his fellow officers were able to revive him with naloxone.
Fentanyl is now a fact of the Ohio drug trade. It is incredibly dangerous. Anyone who takes it regularly is at high risk of overdose and death. The only way to undo some of the damage fentanyl has done is to make treatment available to the people the drug has ensnared.