A new deadly opioid threat on the scene in Snohomish County

EVERETT — Fentanyl is making its way into Snohomish County, a concern for police and public health.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, typically prescribed as a painkiller to advanced cancer patients. Mexican drug cartels have learned to manufacture it illegally. It can be marketed by itself or, more often, added by traffickers to heroin or cocaine as a cutting agent. That’s in part because fentanyl can be cheaper and it can boost the high. It’s also more dangerous. Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than street-level heroin, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

“This is something fairly new to the Northwest,” said sheriff’s Lt. Scott Parker with the Snohomish Regional Drug & Gang Task Force. “It’s been around, but the extent that we’re seeing it or hearing about it is new.”

That could mean an uptick in overdoses. The county Medical Examiner’s Office determined that fentanyl was a factor in five deaths in 2015. In comparison, the medical examiner investigated more than 40 opiate-related deaths that year. Most of those overdose deaths involved multiple substances, not just heroin or pills.

In June, King County sent out a public notice that two women died after apparently snorting cocaine that was laced with acetylfentanyl, a form of fentanyl created in clandestine drug labs. King County also reported 132 heroin deaths in 2015 and 97 deaths from pharmaceutical opioids, according to a University of Washington analysis. That number included the first documented death in that county from acetylfentanyl.

Fentanyl is so potent that local police are taking extra precautions. The DEA in June issued a national warning that a tiny amount of fentanyl, which can be absorbed through the skin or accidentally inhaled, can kill humans and police dogs. A “dose” of fentanyl is considered a microgram, or one millionth of a gram. That’s similar in size to “a few granules of table salt,” according to the DEA. Fentanyl can be distributed as a powder, a liquid or a liquid that’s been dried on paper. It is also sometimes prescribed in the form of patches that adhere to the skin.

Anyone in the community who finds a baggie of powder should treat it with the same caution as they would a hypodermic needle, Parker said.

The danger to officers is partly because police on the street conduct quick chemical field tests on suspected illegal drugs. Such tests can confirm the nature of the substance as potential evidence for an arrest or criminal charge. Last month, the Everett Police Department issued a memo to officers that they should not conduct field tests where there is a suspicion of fentanyl. Instead, it should be tested in a laboratory.

Sheriff’s deputies are being encouraged to wear gloves, glasses and a face mask when testing an unknown powder, Parker said.

He described fentanyl as “an emerging threat that we need to educate ourselves on.”

While police have seen fentanyl here, it’s not an everyday occurrence. They haven’t come across any fentanyl production labs here either.

The drug also presents a challenge in corrections, where there is a long-standing battle to prevent the introduction of contraband, a contest in which inmates can get creative.

Despite added security measures in recent years, the Snohomish County Jail has seen people overdose after being in custody — and supposedly clean — for days, sheriff’s Maj. Jamie Kane said. Fentanyl doesn’t take up much space, making it easier to hide.

With the size of a normal dose, “it’s shocking what a little bit more than (that) can do and the damage it can cause,” Kane said.

Jail staff wear gloves while screening inmates and packages, but it’s not realistic to require gloves around-the-clock, Kane said. Inmates are asked at booking if they’re on anything. Not everyone is honest, but there are no reports of anyone having specified fentanyl, Kane said. At the same time, drug users may not know what exactly they’ve ingested.

The conversation about fentanyl highlights the evolution of the community’s problem with heroin, Kane said. Jail staff are seeing heroin and painkiller addiction in inmates who are all ages, from all walks of life.

“The community doesn’t understand that it’s not going away, it’s getting worse,” he said.

It’s slowly becoming less taboo in society to talk about addiction. Cities, police departments and the Snohomish Health District have been hosting and planning public forums on heroin, painkillers and related drugs. Some families are telling painful truths in young people’s obituaries.

Because of fentanyl’s strength, an overdose reversal can require a much stronger dose of life-saving medication, according to Dr. Gary Goldbaum, the chief health officer and director for the health district. He sent a county-wide alert to doctors in June about the drug.

“The problem with heroin is not just the heroin itself,” Goldbaum said in a recent interview. “Clearly, the addiction to an opioid is tragic, but the fact is that street heroin can be adulterated. Fentanyl is only one of many drugs that can be mixed in. Very few people start their addiction by using heroin.”

Most users, especially young people, become addicted by abusing prescription drugs, such as oxycodone, he said.

Statistics for fatal drug overdoses don’t account for all of the people who recover, including those saved by first responders, he said. Some communities have started tracking non-fatal overdoses in hospitals.

His June alert to doctors read, “Be aware that persons addicted to opioids may be using street drugs containing fentanyl.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

Take-back info

A take-back program for unwanted medications in Snohomish County has more than two dozen locations, including the sheriff’s office and most local police departments. Additional locations are expected in the coming months. For more information, visit your local police station or www.snohd.org/Waste/Medicine-Disposal. Getting rid of unused medication can prevent abuse by family and visitors.

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