DEA warns local agencies of mass drug overdoses across the U.S.

Possible fentanyl extracted from substances brought to the Montgomery County Coroner office. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

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Possible fentanyl extracted from substances brought to the Montgomery County Coroner office. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Unsuspecting people receiving batches of fentanyl-laced drugs have led to multiple deaths at a time

Federal investigators are warning local jurisdictions of several mass drug overdose events across the country in the first quarter of 2022.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sent a letter this month to “local, state and federal law enforcement” about a nationwide spike in fentanyl-related mass overdose events, categorized as involving three or more overdoses within a close time frame in the same location.

In the past three months, there have been at least seven confirmed mass overdose events across the U.S., according to the DEA, resulting in 58 total overdoses and 29 overdose-related deaths.

The list includes a Jan. 28 Washington D.C. incident in which nine people died in the same city block after ingesting crack-cocaine laced with fentanyl. In early February, seven people died in three days at an apartment complex in St. Louis, again after ingesting crack-cocaine laced with fentanyl. Incidents also occurred in Nebraska, Colorado, Texas and Florida in February and March.

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A statement from DEA Administrator Anne Milgram says many of the victims of mass overdose events think they are ingesting pure cocaine, crack-cocaine, methamphetamine or prescription opioids like OxyContin, and instead unwittingly ingest fentanyl.

“Fentanyl is highly addictive, found in all 50 states, and drug traffickers are increasingly mixing it with other types of drugs —in powder and pill form — in an effort to drive addiction and attract repeat buyers,” Milgram’s letter says. “This is creating a frightening nationwide trend where many overdose victims are dying after unknowingly ingesting fentanyl.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the 12-month period ending in October 2021, over 105,000 Americans are estimated to have died of a drug overdose, and more than 66% of those deaths were related to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. In 2021, the U.S. had more fentanyl-related deaths than gun and auto-related deaths combined.

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In Montgomery County in 2021, there were more than 330 deaths caused by accidental overdoses, slightly more than the 323 deaths recorded in 2020. Health professionals say the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic along with the increase in fentanyl-laced illicit drugs likely led to this increase in deaths.

The data also shows that while there was an increase between 2020 and 2021, the numbers are not nearly as high as they were in 2017 when more than 560 people died in Montgomery County from accidental drug overdose deaths.

Health professionals said they believe the reason the numbers have fallen so drastically since 2017 is the availability of Narcan in the community as well as programs such as the community overdose action team and rapid response teams that seek to connect people battling addiction with services.

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According to the DEA, the agency is working to trace mass overdose events back to local drug trafficking organizations as well as international cartels that are responsible for the surging domestic supply of fentanyl.

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