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Major bust highlights growing fentanyl problem across Franklin County

Written by York Daily Record/Becky Metrick | May 14, 2017 10:46 AM
Chambersburg_fentanyl.jpg

Photo by ydr/Franklin County District Attorney's Office

(Chambersburg) -- Taking $600,000 worth of fentanyl off the street was a major marker in the fight against opioids in Franklin County, but as the drugs continue to morph by creation of synthetics, newer dangers are appearing and keeping officials on high alert.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that is a replacement or supplement for heroin, has been known to be in Franklin County since at least March 2016.

Officials pinpoint that month because it was the first time someone died with "obvious paraphernalia" related to ingesting heroin but tested negative for opiates, according to District Attorney Matt Fogal, who also is the head of the county Drug Task Force.

At the time, they weren't testing for synthetics, like fentanyl, so once they did retesting to include the newer drug, they got a positive result.

"It is stronger and more potent than even the current heroin, which is in itself more potent and dangerous than it used to be," Fogal said.

Fentanyl comes in several different forms, including pills and powder and can be used to cut heroin.

It also enables a dealer "to use less of the actual heroin which is more expensive than the fentanyl and making the whole kit much more dangerous."

After the March overdose, there were 20 deaths involving fentanyl in 2016 plus 12 deaths involving heroin, according to Franklin County Coroner Jeff Conner. In some cases, the deaths were due to a mixture of both.

So far in 2017, there have been 10 overdose deaths, five of which are believed to be involving fentanyl.

The drugs, simply put, are coming from China, according to Fogal. But the methods of getting the drug to those addicted to the substance is a whole other matter.

"Some of this is developing so fast that I don't even know if I'm able to generalize it at this point," Fogal said. "There's a lot of different things that are happening now that were never really happening before as far as the drug trade or industry goes."

Fogal said the strategy that happened with crack a while ago, where people were sent from cities to set up shop and sell, but not use the drugs, is not happening as much as it used to be.

There is movement of the drug from larger cities, but the internet has introduced a new component for investigators to deal with.

As investigators have worked to find the sources of local fentanyl, the appearance of carfentanil, another synthetic opioid that is much more potent than fentanyl, has begun making appearances in surrounding states.

Carfentanil, known as an elephant tranquilizer, is so strong that it is potentially dangerous to first responders.

"Our guys have gloves and masks and stuff like that and basically if they come across something they believe could be carfentanil, they're shutting it down," Fogal said.

Only the Pennsylvania State Police Clandestine Lab Team is equipped to handle carfenanil, and would be called in the event it shows up.

While carfentanil is much more dangerous, fentanyl has been known to cause issues with first responders, according to Fogal. It can be absorbed through the skin or through the eyes and can cause seizures or even a fatal overdose.

The changing form of the drug caused a minor issue for investigators, shown in that March 2016 overdose, where they had to make sure they were testing for it.

"Any time that there's something new that we just don't have on the books to test for, we have to sort of catch up, but once we do, that's fixed," Fogal said.

Thanks to some law changes years ago, originally made to adjust to synthetic forms of marijuana, there are no new hurdles Fogal has seen in the prosecution of fentanyl dealers and manufacturers - which is important because of how fentanyl's presence has grown in the past year.

"I don't know if it's overcome (heroin), but it's maybe equal," Fogal said. As the head of the Opioid Drug Task Force, Fogal has spoken to people in recovery now whom he says inform him the most about the user experience.

"That kind of high is much more dangerous, but it's that much better in relation to the high," Fogal said. "So it has become that much more in demand because of that, even though it's more dangerous."

It's gotten the point where he has heard there's even demand for the batches of heroin people have overdosed on.

"Sometimes when people overdose on a batch that people know is out there in the community and culture, then that's the one they want, because it must be good," Fogal said.

While the drug and its forms are constantly changing, Fogal sees this as a "constant cat and mouse" where law enforcement needs to catch up to the new drugs, although it's a short period of time where they're behind.

For now, the Drug Task Force is focused on opioids, including this past week's arrest that included 18,000 pills and pill production equipment being confiscated from a storage shed in Hamilton Township. While they're proud of the arrest, they know there is still work to do.

"I would ask the public to continue to use that tip line because it, I'm telling you it literally provides information that leads to arrests all the time," Fogal said. "We check it, it leads to some big break-throughs."

Anyone with information on drug use in the community is asked to call 1-800-344-3127, or email tips@drugtaskforce.org. You can also anonymously fill out a form on their website.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

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