Rise of potent synthetic opioids concerns Routt County officials
October 6, 2016
Steamboat Springs — A frightening new front in the ongoing battle against opiate addiction and abuse is forming on America's streets: a pair of synthetic opioids, fentanyl and carfentanil, the latter of which can be 10,000 times as potent as morphine and can kill a human in dosages as low as one grain.
And while it might be easy to imagine the growing prevalence of these two synthetic opioids is a problem limited to the streets of inner cities — not the idyllic byways and scenic mountain passes of Routt County — Sheriff Garrett Wiggins is concerned enough that he released a public safety announcement about these potentially deadly substances.
"In addition to heroin, we are now seeing synthetic opioids called fentanyl and carfentanil being introduced to our nation's streets," Wiggins wrote. "Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine, and carfentanil (which is used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large animals) is 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
“The increased presence of carfentanil and fentanyl is a major concern, as the strength of this drug could possibly lead to an increase in accidental exposure or overdose deaths," Wiggins continued.
Asked Thursday whether these synthetics have been seen in Routt County, Wiggins said that, to his knowledge, they haven't.
"I think in some of the bigger metropolitan areas they're probably seeing a lot of this stuff, now, and on the East Coast, I think they're seeing more of it," Wiggins said. "It's just a matter of time before it gets to us."
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But according to Ken Davis, co-founder of Routt County's Rx Task Force, a local group committed to battling the area's opiate and heroin abuse problem, these substances may already be here, flying below the law enforcement radar.
"I definitely know there's fentanyl in our community," Davis said, "… and it's getting cut into everything. It's getting cut into heroin, it's getting cut into cocaine, it's getting cut into meth."
And therein, Davis said, lies much of the danger.
"These people have no idea (what they're taking), and that's just so dangerous," he said. "A piece of carfentanil the size of a grain of sand is enough to cause an overdose."
Wiggins agreed, adding that the tremendous potency of these substances — particularly carfentanil — raises additional concerns about the safety of officers and emergency medical personnel, who might inadvertently ingest the drug through the course of their duties.
"That's one of our biggest concerns," Wiggins said. "If our deputies or officers are messing with the stuff, and they try to get a little out of the package to test it, and a breeze comes up and blows it in their face, within seconds, they could be dead."
Accordingly, Wiggins said, he has issued a standing order mandating that, "until further notice, all testing of suspicious substances will be performed in a lab setting using protective equipment or sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations for analysis."
The sheriff said he also wanted to warn the community about the safety issues associated with these substances.
"We do have active users of opiates here, and when they get to the point where they're looking at alternative things, they could be getting fentanyl or carfentanil," he said. "Most of the time, when they use, there's always a little bit left in their packaging, and the first thing people do when they find it is they say, "What's this?" and then, they smell it."
And when dealing with a substance as potent as carfentanil, a single sniff could be enough to kill.
"We just want to make sure that everybody is aware that, hey, this is out there," Wiggins said. "It's not so much that we're seeing it here yet, but all these safety reports we get are saying it's so potent … a pinhit of this carfentanil is enough to kill somebody.
"… At some point in time, we're gonna start seeing this stuff. I think our users need to be aware of what this stuff is, and the loved one of a user, they need to be aware, too, because if they see it, they need to take extra precautions in handling this stuff."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, both fentanyl and carfentanil can be absorbed via inhalation, oral exposure or ingestion or skin contact.