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Fentanyl: Another legitimate medication now part of the opioid epidemic

Heroin in central New York is now sometimes laced with fentanyl.

Last week, sheriff’s deputies raided what they say is the biggest fentanyl mill they’ve seen in Onondga County, arresting six people and stopping the sale of an estimated 6,000 bags of fentanyl-laced heroin locally. The bust showcases how a drug that is often used for good, has been co-opted into the illegal drug scene.

Anyone ever involved in a car accident, or who has gone to the emergency room with a broken bone, may have heard of fentanyl. The synthetic opioid is a prescription medication, according to William Eggleston, a pharmacist inn the Upstate Poison Control Center.

“It’s available in IV formulation as well as patch formulations. It’s used in the hospital quite commonly for severe pain,” said Eggleston.

The difference between fentanyl and morphine or heroin, is that it’s much stronger -- 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to Eggleston. And while that’s good for someone in severe pain, it can be deadly for an opioid addict using heroin laced with the substance. 

“They take the dose that normally gets them high and all of the sudden they’re unconscious and on the ground and not breathing, because they didn’t know such a strong drug was mixed in there,” said Eggleston.

This isn’t the first time that fentanyl has been a part of the illegal drug trade. In the 1990s it was popular in New York City, called tango and cash or china white. But it’s been underground for about a decade, resurfacing now at a time when heroin addiction is reaching epidemic levels in central New York and across the country.  

The question is, where are the dealers getting it, at a cost that makes it worth it? Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department investigators say much of it comes from Mexico or China. What worries Eggleston about this is that the current iteration of fentanyl that’s on the streets might not be the last.

“Just like we see synthetic marijuana as kind of these different chemicals stronger than regular marijuana, we’re seeing synthetic fentanyls that are different from fentanyl, selling them as research chemicals, and they are even stronger than fentanyl itself.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.