Health Officials Worried Over Rise of Fentanyl

By Guy Leonard, St. Mary's County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md.—As police and health officials continue to fight the epidemic of opioid abuse in either pill or heroin form there is a growing concern that a particular drug — fentanyl — will cause more overdoses and cost more lives.

Often used as a prescription pain killer, fentanyl is extremely powerful and is now being made on the street for illicit use, said Dr. Meena Brewster, St. Mary’s County Health Officer.

The danger, she said, is that aside from its potency, fentanyl made for use on the street can be made with unknown chemicals that may only increase the toxicity to the user.

“People who are using this don’t always know what it’s cut with or what the dosage should be,” Brewster said at a recent public training session on the use of naloxone to combat overdoses. “[Fentanyl] can be hundreds of times more potent than other opioids.”

Brewster said that synthetic or illicitly produced fentanyl is being packaged in pill form to make it look like oxycodone, another widely prescribed and also illicitly used opioid pain killer.

In powder form, she said, the drug also looks like heroin.

Worst of all illicit drug abusers are now combining heroin and fentanyl, which she said is a lethal combination.

A recently released report from the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene based on statistics from the Medical Examiner shows that deaths from heroin overdoses state wide have risen sharply; the number in St. Mary’s has fluctuated over the seven year range of the study but the toll remains heavy.

The report compiled data from 2007 to 2013, when law enforcement agencies have noted a sharp rise in heroin and opioid addiction, and it showed that 25 people have died in that space of time from heroin overdoses alone here.

The year 2012 had the highest number with seven heroin-related deaths, according to the study, but put St. Mary’s behind Calvert and Charles counties in the number of fatalities. There were 29 such deaths in Calvert and 32 in Charles over a seven year period, according to the report.

And while heroin addiction and subsequent fatal overdoses have become one of the greatest worries of local law enforcement officials the report shows that the narcotics that have led to heroin’s resurgence as a street drug, prescription opiate pills, account for the highest death rate locally.

The study showed that 38 people lost their lives to opioid abuse in the last seven years in St. Mary’s County alone.

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