TUCSON – More people are dying of fentanyl overdoses because they are unintentionally taking the drug.
Pima County Medical Examiner Greg Hess just calculated the 2016 overdose numbers for his office. In 2016 there were 16 fatal fentanyl overdoses in Pima County. There were 14 in 2015 and 5 in 2014.
“We keep track of how and why people die and provide that information to public health and to the government,” Hess said, “so people can put initiatives into place to try to decrease those kinds of deaths. So it's something we are clearly paying attention to.”
Heroin and methamphetamine are still, by far, the deadliest drugs in Pima County.
Capt. John Leavitt is part of the Counter Narcotics Alliance, a group of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. He said the most common fentanyl on the streets is in the form of fake pharmaceutical painkillers.
“We have a wave coming towards us as a community,” Leavitt said.
Federal and state officials are making it more difficult for doctors to prescribe pain medicine. That is part of the reason more people are turning to the black market.
“These are people trying not to get sick,” Leavitt said.
Fentanyl is an effective pain medication commonly prescribed by doctors. Drug dealers have figured out how to make it, mostly in China. Toxicology tests cannot distinguish between pharmaceutical fentanyl and the kind made for the black market.
“Generally speaking, fentanyl, appropriately prescribed in our community, is not leading to anyone's death,” Leavitt said.
The drug is being pressed into pills that appear to be from a pharmacy. It is also being mixed with heroin or replacing the drug entirely.
Keith Boesen is a pharmacist and the director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center.
“The effects that someone would be expected to have are very similar to one another when you take it,” Boesen said, “same type of family. It's the same family as oxycodone as heroin as morphine.”
Fentanyl is stronger than other narcotics, so smugglers can carry smaller volumes for the same profit. But the illegal manufacturers do not have the same quality control as pharmaceutical companies.
“There is a very small margin for error with fentanyl,” Boesen said. “It's incredibly powerful.”
Sam Nagy used to be addicted to illegal drugs. He said his supply was not always consistent.
“It was made from who knows what,” Nagy said. “There was not like an FDA regulation on crack cocaine back then.”
Officers in the Tucson Police Department are now carrying an overdose-reversing drug called naloxone. The brand-name is Narcan. They have used it to save 2 lives.
“There can be some side effects for some patients,” Boesen said. “The real benefit probably outweighs any risk.”
Arizona law changed so pharmacists can dispense naloxone without a prescription. The intention is to make the drug available for people worried about friends or family members with opioid problems.
Leavitt said proactive treatment is becoming more available.
“Until January I would say that you would probably end up on a waiting list if you were looking for some kind of help,” he said. “And there have been some new organizations that have opened up that make it so you can get help almost immediately or immediately.”