Fentanyl has entered the consciousness of popular culture. In the second episode of HBO’s series “Euphoria,” the character Rue (played by Zendaya) is a teen opioid addict who undergoes rehab, but quickly relapses and later is forced to take fentanyl by a cruel drug dealer. She takes a long sleep on this deadly drug but survives.
The story is very Hollywood, but the truth is more ominous: Fentanyl kills people across America every day.
The origin of fentanyl in America bears similarities to the story line in another series: AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” In the early 1990s, a self-taught Kansas chemistry wizard named George Marquardt built a sophisticated laboratory outside Wichita to produce fentanyl, and he is believed to have caused the first wave of overdose deaths from the drug in America. The reward for Marquardt’s ahead-of-his-time ingenuity was a 25-year federal prison sentence. (He was released in 2016 after serving 22 years.)
Decades later, deadly fentanyl is common on our streets.
For many years, the biggest drug scourge in Kansas has been methamphetamine, a drug that has devastated many lives and families. But the disheartening appetite for soul-numbing poisons has grown to include prescription painkillers — a taste that sometimes leads to cheaper heroin available on the street, especially when legitimate prescription sources become unavailable. Drug dealers now frequently sell heroin mixed with fentanyl sourced from foreign countries such as China, India, or Mexico — a potentially deadly practice.
But buyers of street drugs purported to be heroin and opioid pills cannot possibly know what they are purchasing actually contains, so they are taking deadly risks with their lives. For anyone without an opiate tolerance built up through regular use of these painkillers, even a few grains of fentanyl — an amount so small it almost cannot be seen with the naked eye — can be fatal. Undercover officers who merely shake hands with a drug dealer have been poisoned by skin contact with particles of fentanyl, as have drug-sniffing dogs that inhaled fentanyl particles.
My office has charged cases in which defendants were selling counterfeit pills purported to be oxycodone or hydrocodone, but that in fact contained deadly fentanyl. And we have charged numerous cases in which dealers sold supposed heroin that contained fentanyl.
We have seen an increasing number of cases in which fentanyl-laced heroin caused the death of users, including an 18-year-old Kansas State freshman who tried heroin and was found dead in his apartment the following morning.
Drug dealers know they are playing Russian roulette with their customers’ lives; they often just don’t care. And they rely on Narcan, a nasal spray antidote for overdoses, which some dealers keep in quantities in their drug houses in anticipation of needing to revive customers who otherwise would die on the spot. We’ve also seen cases where people take turns shooting up with Narcan at the ready, relying on one user to save the other if the dose is too powerful.
Fentanyl today is being produced and distributed in terrifyingly large quantities. For example, the Kansas Highway Patrol stopped a vehicle in Russell County, Kansas, and found more than 60 pounds of fentanyl — enough to kill over 12.7 million people.
We must warn and educate everyone — our children, family, friends and fellow citizens — about these dangers. Our youth especially must be made to understand and appreciate the risks. No drug offered by friends, acquaintances or dealers can be trusted. Unfortunately, what the misguided Wichita chemistry genius Marquardt said 25 years ago has come to pass: “I could literally fill a dump truck with this stuff (fentanyl) if the demand existed.”
Dump trucks of fentanyl now effectively exist, thanks to strong American demand. The shocking truth is that the fentanyl entering the United States today can fill many cemeteries with overdose victims. We must act aggressively to halt this evil and deadly epidemic.
Stephen McAllister is the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas.