New opioids complicate crisis

Synthetic opiates linked to increasing overdoses

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On Nov. 7, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published an article detailing the findings of a study that uses toxicological evidence to test the heroin found at overdose scenes across ten states. The study found that Fentanyl, an opioid that is often 10 times stronger than heroin, was found in over fifty percent of the heroin tested.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly 90 Americans die from opiate overdoses every day.

Lane Community College counselor Mark Harris, who acts as the coordinator for the Substance Abuse Prevention and Recovery Center, isn’t surprised by the uptick in opioid-related deaths.

“I’d say the majority of the people I talk to struggle with opiate addiction. But it switches between meth and heroin,” Harris said.

“So far, that I know of, nobody has ever overdosed on LCC property. Not yet, at least.”

Harris has a sharps container for dirty needles in his office at all times. The custodians and janitorial staff have grown accustomed to finding used needles littered about the bathroom and surrounding bushes near the bus stops.

Lane County Chief Deputy District Attorney Erik Hasselman says that while opiates have remained an increased concern among law enforcement, the detection of synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl has remained difficult.

“As a prosecutor, we’ve seen a few Fentanyl possession cases come in, but a lot of times it’s taking us months and months to get lab results, so often-times we’re a little behind on the curve,” Hasselman said.

Douglas Gaines / The Torch
Sources: 1. 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2. Mortality in the United States, 2016 NCHS Data Brief No. 293, December 2017.

In January of 2018, the toxicology report from an overdose back in August revealed Lane County’s first encounter with a synthetic derivative of Fentanyl called Cyclopropyl.

“We got our first case of these Fentanyl offshoots this month,” Hasselman said. “From what I understand, the person taking it didn’t think it was Fentanyl. They thought it was something else.”

Back in November, 2017 the United States Drug Enforcement Agency published a temporary order to place Cyclopropyl Fentanyl in the same categories as meth and heroin. The change officially makes Fentanyl a Schedule 1 drug, with no medical use.

According to Hasselman and statistics kept by the medical examiner’s office, in 2016 Lane County had 57 fatal drug overdoses. Of those 57, three had Fentanyl in combination with other drugs in their systems and one person had only Fentanyl present.

Marc Douthit, Program Manager for Eugene’s Buckley Detox Center, says that in 2014, Buckley only admitted opiate addicts three days a week. Since then, it’s changed to five full days of admissions.

“Opiate detoxes make up the bulk of our business. I’d venture to say that some months, 70 to 80 percent of our admissions are here for opiates,” Douthit said.

Douthit admits that it’s tough to gauge the amount of Fentanyl users coming into the facility. The 12-panel drug tests given to new admissions don’t test for synthetic opiates like Fentanyl. And with Fentanyl increasingly being used as a cutting agent for street heroin, a lot of users may not know that they’re even taking it.

“We don’t do a Fentanyl specific screening and I’d venture to say that most treatment centers in Lane County don’t either,” Douthit said. “We don’t get a large volume of Fentanyl only users, and it’s tough to know what’s exactly in the heroin our patients have been consuming.”

Breanna Tupper is a current Lane Community College student and recovering heroin addict who helped bring meetings of Heroin Anonymous to Lane County in May 2016.

“I think that heroin and opiate addiction is a widespread epidemic that not only destroys the lives of the people addicted, but also the family members and friends that surround them,” Tupper said.

Tupper is among a small group of individuals who bring HA meetings into local jails and detox facilities.

“Finding a constructive community of recovering addicts is vital to finding a way out of isolation and hopelessness,” Tupper said.

Tupper, who has over two years clean from opiates, is currently studying psychology with an interest in becoming a marriage and family counselor.

As the nation attempts to address the rising number of opioid-related deaths, certain counties have taken a harm reduction approach to addiction. Lyndsie Leech, the development director for Eugene’s needle exchange program through the HIV Alliance, believes in treating addicts with compassion.

“Our harm reduction philosophy is that we are not judgemental. We try and empathize with each individual that comes through our doors,” Leech said.

According to the North American Syringe Exchange Network, as of 2015 there are about 200 needle exchange programs across 33 states.  

“Studies have shown that needle exchange programs reduce the likelihood of spreading diseases through sharing needles,” Leech said.

Leech says that they also offer support groups and meal assistance for people experiencing homelessness and addiction-related issues.

“We try to build a sense of community without the need for opiates and other substances. However, we know that drug use exists, and that’s where harm reduction comes into play,” Leech said.