The pharmaceutical opioid fentanyl has been hitting the country like a tidal wave in recent months with countless cases of overdoses and large-scale drug busts involving the synthetic painkiller. Park County has not been spared from this phenomenon.
“Those narratives affect us here in Cody,” said Cody Police Chief Chuck Baker during a Faith and Blue forum Oct. 25.
Baker and Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric said they have seen a noticeable presence of fentanyl, with Baker also seeing an increase of drug overdoses.
“Fentanyl is scary stuff,” Skoric said during the forum.
Tony Garber, a community-based program manager for the Wyoming Department of Corrections, oversees drug and alcohol testing. He said his organization has seen an uptick in the presence of fentanyl statewide.
“We have seen a number of former offenders who have passed away from fentanyl,” he said.
In the past month alone, there have been a number of cases where the highly addictive drug was found being used.
In late October, a Powell woman allegedly drove off the side of the road when she passed out from fentanyl with her five-month-old baby sitting in the back seat. Authorities found 14 grams of fentanyl as well as crystal meth and heroin in her possession.
In a different case, a couple from Washington state were found with a felony quantity of meth along with fentanyl and various other illicit drugs while parked at Walmart. After being taken into custody, one of the suspects allegedly smuggled a fentanyl pill into the Park County Detention Center and ingested it. He had to be taken to the emergency room for his own safety.
Park County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jack Hatfield said there are a handful of other cases related to fentanyl that will be filed soon as well, when confirmation results come back from the state lab.
Garber said his department has acquired fentanyl quick-tests, which alert to the likely presence of the drug immediately. Not only is this important for charging suspects, but it is also critical for the safety of officers performing searches.
“The next thing you know you’re down on the ground fighting for your life,” he said.
What is it?
Fentanyl, found in either pill or powder form, is considered 50-100 times more addictive than morphine and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is most comparable to heroin. Although it is prescribed in the form of transdermal patches or lozenges, most recent cases involve illegally made fentanyl acquired on the black market.
Jackie Fales, a family program facilitator for Cedar Mountain Center and peer support specialist at Cody Regional Behavioral Health, works everyday with people who are still using drugs. She is in long-term recovery from heroin and meth herself, clean since 2016.
Like Baker, Fales said she has recently seen a drastically increasing amount of overdoses due to fentanyl.
“Most of the people that I’ve seen really struggling with it are the people that are still out there,” she said, “the people that aren’t having the opportunity to get help with it, to get treatment for it.”
Fales said fentanyl could already be found in Cody when she was still using. However, the difference today, she said, is numerous other drugs are showing up in Cody laced with fentanyl, such as meth and marijuana, creating a dangerous scenario for an unsuspecting user.
“We’re getting more of some drugs we tend to not typically assess,” Baker said.
The Drug Enforcement Agency reports that 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage. DEA analysis has found counterfeit pills ranging from .02 to 5.1 mg of fentanyl per tablet, with 42% of pills tested containing at least 2 mg.
Garber worries inexperienced drug users will be tempted to try the drug, unaware of the risks it poses.
“If you take too much it’s too late,” he said.
Although most law enforcement authorities and health care staff keep Narcan,a narcotic overdose nasal spray, on-hand, Fales said few members of the public keep it in possession.
Fales said the withdrawals from fentanyl can be “horrendous.”
Fentanyl is just the newest flavor of an opioid epidemic that has decimated the United States over the past several decades.
The CDC reports overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids were nearly 12 times higher in 2019 than in 2013. More than 36,000 people died from overdoses to synthetic opioids in 2019.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 100,000 people died from drug overdose in the past year in America. From 2018-2019, drug overdose fatalities increased in Wyoming by 16.5% according to RehabAid, an addiction resource database.
Larger problems may loom on the horizon as the emergence of a new opioid called carfentanil will likely spell the demise of countless Americans. This drug is up to 10,000 times more potent than morphine and is starting to show up throughout the United States according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Fales stressed dealing with substance abuse is a community-wide issue that every resident should care about. In one way or another, she said it affects nearly everyone at least indirectly.
“We have to care about everybody in our community,” she said. “If someone says they’re not affected by it I most of the time don’t believe them.”
She said too many people look at drug addiction as a shameful, moral failing, and discriminate against those with substance abuse disorder.
“We have a chronic disease that has a treatment and people get better, we recover from it,” she said.
Fales said substance abuse disorder is a faceless disease that can strike almost anyone, from any walk of life. Often, addiction starts as a way to alleviate chronic pain, other times, it’s used as a way to cope with trauma.
“When I used for the first time, I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to have a substance abuse disorder and that’ll be really great,’” she said. “I was just trying to deal with something and I didn’t really know any other way.”
She said the best move a person struggling with substance abuse can make is to seek help.
“There’s so many resources in this community that can help people and as scary as it is to make that decision it’s the best thing to ever happen to me,” she said.
To seek assistance with drug addiction contact Cody Regional Health at 307.527.7501 or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).