The police officer responding to a drug bust in East Liverpool, Ohio—a small city 85 miles southeast of Cleveland near the Pennsylvania border—was following procedure: He’d donned gloves and a mask while searching a car and handling the seized material, a white powder that was almost certainly some kind of opiate.
But somehow, he spilled some of the powder on his uniform shirt.
After another cop pointed it out, he brushed the mystery powder off his shirt with an ungloved hand—and promptly passed out.
The powder turned out to be fentanyl, the synthetic opiate “credited” for the rapid and steep increase in fatal overdoses, and the cop was the victim of an “accidental drug overdose,” as police later told the Associated Press.
The unnamed officer was “treated with an overdose reversal drug,” most likely naloxone—which police officers in many states hit hard by the epidemic now carry on their utility belts, along with tasers and guns—and was “fine” after a few days.
However, the mishap is only one in a series of events that have had a troubling chilling effect on first responders and serve as a grim reminder to everyone else living in America during the opiate overdose crisis: The country’s meteoric rise in opioid-related overdoses can be traced directly back to a change in supply.
By now, the narrative is as familiar of an American tale as stories about Detroit’s decline or 9/11: When the “pill mills” that sparked the country’s ongoing opiate addiction were shut down, addicts turned to street heroin.
When heroin became too expensive or too onerous to acquire, enterprising drug dealers turned to synthetics like fentanyl—which, despite its terminal strength, is becoming the adulterant of choice among other street drugs.
According to the New York City Department of Public Health, fentanyl is now appearing in the local cocaine supply.
Once the country’s capital for heroin use, New York City has fewer fatal opiate overdoses than places like Ohio and Pennsylvania in both sheer numbers and per capita—but almost 40 percent of the city’s 1,300 fatal overdoses in 2016 came from fentanyl-tainted cocaine, the city’s health commissioner told Business Insider.
“All New Yorkers who use drugs, even if only occasionally, should know their drugs may be mixed with fentanyl,” said commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett in a statement to Business Insider.
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