Photo: Alvesgaspar / CC BY-SA 3.0
A new report from Florida’s medical examiners found that fentanyl overdose caused more deaths than any other drug in Florida in the first six months of 2016. Compared with the first half of 2015, occurrences of fentanyl—the synthetic opioid that killed Prince—nearly doubled, and deaths caused by fentanyl increased by a troubling 139.5 percent. In 2015, the drugs causing the most deaths were benzodiazepines (1,140), cocaine (967), and morphine (895). The first half of 2016 presented a different picture. The drugs that caused the most deaths in that period were fentanyl, cocaine, and benzodiazepines, in that order. Florida is trying to meet the rising threat with stiffer penalties for drug dealers. Under a new law recently signed by Governor Rick Scott, traffickers can now face murder charges if their clients overdose and die after using fentanyl. Much of the illicit fentanyl arriving in Florida was likely manufactured in Mexico or China and then smuggled into the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Central Florida is one of the state’s regions that has been hit especially hard by the emergence of fentanyl. According to data provided by the Medical Examiners Commission, the Orange–Osceola district, which contains Orlando, registered a 22 percent increase in overdose deaths involving fentanyl. In both Hillsborough County (Tampa) and the Pasco–Pinellas district, which contains St. Petersburg, the increase was 42 percent. Most drug users don’t even know they’re buying fentanyl. The illegally manufactured opioid is often mixed with heroin to cut costs and increase profits. Former DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart described the potency of fentanyl as “up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 30–50 times more powerful than heroin.” Unfortunately, fentanyl is not even the most dangerous drug out there. The region is already bracing for the impact of an even deadlier drug. Carfentanil—a synthetic drug developed to tranquilize large mammals—has begun to show up in Florida as well. It is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and poses a danger to anybody coming into direct contact with it. The Orlando Sentinel reported in November that the Orange–Osceola medical examiner’s office is now equipping its staff with naloxone (Narcan), a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, in case employees inadvertently touch or inhale carfentanil. “It’s so potent that if we come in contact with it, we can get overdose symptoms,” said Dr. Joshua Stephany, Orange–Osceola chief medical examiner. His office is one of the first in the state to carry naloxone for this purpose.