RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Deaths from the powerful painkiller Fentanyl are soaring in Virginia, and 8News has learned it’s changing the way law enforcement is responding to overdoses.
“I knew what Fentanyl was, I knew it was more potent, I knew it was the supposedly most potent opioid in the world and I started seeking that out specifically,” admits former addict Ryan Nichols.
When the high from heroin was no longer enough, the Richmonder turned to the potent painkiller. It’s the same drug that killed musical icon Prince back in April.
“I wasn’t afraid of harming myself or anyone around me,” Nichols added. “I was pretty selfish.”
Smuggled in from Mexico, Fentanyl, or heroin laced with fentanyl, is now showing up more and more on the streets of Richmond. Nichols even showed 8News a black market pharmacy selling it online.
“Opioids,ecstasy, you can see what company it is coming from,” he explained.
Drug enforcement agents say the drug is far more powerful and dangerous that the Fentanyl used to treat cancer patients.
“It’s somewhere between 40 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 20 to 40 times more potent than the heroin we see on the street,” said Greg Cherundolo, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for DEA Richmond District Office.
Fentanyl-related fatalities are on the rise in Virginia. In 2007 there were 48; that number doubled in 2013 to 102. Estimates for 2015 currently stand at 218 deaths.
In the Richmond region, there were just six Fentanyl fatalities in 2007, but a big increase in 2013 to 14. A year later in 2014 that number shot up to 35.
“A very minute amount of Fentanyl can be a deadly dose,” Cherundolo explained.
The drug even poses a fatal threat for law enforcement.
“I felt like my body was shutting down,” explained one officer on a DEA video warning law enforcement about the dangers of Fentanyl.
To protect agents from the fumes of Fentanyl, the DEA is changing up operations, urging all officers to stop testing the drugs in the field.
“If we believe it to be Fentanyl, we are packaging it up and sending it straight to the lab” Cherundolo said.
And just in case, DEA agents are now carrying the life-saving overdose drug naloxone. It’s not for the victims, but for themselves.
“We’re doing it mainly for our own officer safety,” Cherundolo said.
“It’s scary and it’s dangerous,” added David Rook, operations manager for the McShin Foundation, a recovery center in Richmond. He says they, too, are now treating more addicts hooked on fentanyl.
“As the media and law enforcement mentioned it, we have definitely seen a rise in it as well,” Rook said.
He also tells us Fentanyl doesn’t show up on instant drug tests, and they too are now having to send tests to an outside lab.
Now 75 days clean, Nichols said he has McShin to thank.
“You look up to staff members here,” he said. “People have come from the situation that you are in and now are on the other side, or seemingly on the other side. It creates hope when there was no hope.”