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Elephant sedative more powerful than fentanyl emerges as newest overdose threat in U.S.

July 29, 2016  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Elephant sedative more powerful than fentanyl emerges as newest overdose threat in U.S.

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A sedative used for elephants and other large animals, which is about 100 times more potent than fentanyl, is intensifying the country’s heroin issue in spates of overdoses in multiple states, where authorities say they’ve discovered it combined with or sold as heroin.

Carfentanil is among the most potent opioids known to authorities, which adds another twist in the battle against painkillers in a country filled with fentanyl and heroin cases.

Each time authorities begin to get a handle on one drug; another one pops up, said the chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and narcotics unit for the U.S. attorney in Cleveland, Joseph Pinjuh.

Pinjuh said, “You feel like a kid with his finger in the dike, you know? We’re running out of fingers.”

A man accused of disguising carfentanil and selling it as heroin was indicted this week in Ohio on 20 counts, including murder in connection with a July 10th death and nine overdoses that all occurred within hours of each other. Some of those who managed to survived told authorities that they believed they were buying heroin from the man, but testing revealed no heroin in their systems, said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien.

Rayshon Alexander, the suspect, pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Investigators have not yet cracked down on the source of the drug. Mike DeWine, Ohio Attorney General, stated that he was unaware of any thefts of the drug, which, he added, could be shipped from overseas or produced here in the states.

The Associated Press reported that Chinese companies distribute carfentanil online, but it hasn’t been too prevalent in the U.S. drug supply. There is not much evidence of carfentanil on the streets or in criminal case testing, said a spokesman for the DEA’s Detroit Division, which covers Ohio, Agent Rich Isaacson.

The drug has been allegedly involved in overdoses or found in seized drugs in Kentucky, Tampa Bay and Sarasota areas in Florida, and in various Ohio cities.

Akron officials have identified more than 230 overdoses in July alone, 20 of which were fatal, and authorities said evidence of carfentanil was discovered in some of those.

The drug is believed to be similar in potency to a painkiller known as W-18, which has shown up in heroin in New England, Philadelphia, and Canada. Such drugs increase stakes in a market where dealers already mix powerful painkillers with or disguise them as heroin to increase their products’ strength, which ultimately increases overdose risk for users, especially when they are not aware of the drug they are taking.

A traditional business owner might decide that killing his customers is bad for business, however, dealers looking to make more money can find a burst of overdoses to be a boom, helping to attract customers to their product, Pinjuh said.

He added, “They know that’s the high that’ll take you right up to the edge, maybe kill you, maybe not. That’s the high that they want.”

Carfentanil is so powerful that zoo veterinarians are required to wear face masks, gloves and other protective gear that is “just a little bit short of a hazmat suit” when working with the drug to sedate animals. Even a minuscule amount splattered into a person’s nose or eye could be deadly, according to Dr. Rob Hilsenroth, executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians.

A syringe of a reversal medication is kept on standby just in case, and the limited carfentanil supply that regulators permit for such vet facilities is kept secured away and is subject to auditing, Hilsenroth noted.

Law enforcement officials are taking the risks very seriously. In a notice to law enforcement agencies last week, DeWine’s office warned police against field-testing suspected heroin or fentanyl out of fear that it may contain carfentanil or another potentially harmful synthetic opioid. Instead, the office suggested sending samples straight to the lab for examination.

DeWine said that this is not the first time that drugs for animals have made their way to the streets, but carfentanil is so new on the investigative scene that the state’s crime lab does not have a standard for comparing samples.

In some suspected cases, emergency responders have had to administer multiple doses of the overdose medicine naloxone, better known by its brand name Narcan, to save people, but even the counteractant might not be enough.

Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, the Hamilton County, Cincinnati coroner, openly warned users during a recent press conference, saying that “Narcan may not save you on this one.”

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