There’s a frightening new menace turning up in drug markets across Chicagoland. And in the county morgues. It’s even in the U.S. Mail.
That menace is the drug fentanyl, more powerful than heroin, cheaper to make, and much more deadly.
“We had a 370% increase in fentanyl mixture deaths, at 24,” says Dr. Richard Jorgensen, the Dupage County Coroner. “And we had 16 pure fentanyl deaths---that is a complete change from the year before.”
Complete, as in a 100% increase.
“Almost every case coming through our office has some fentanyl in the system,” Jorgensen says. “A year ago, all the cases would be heroin cases.”
Dupage is not alone. Will County saw a 42% increase in Fentanyl-related deaths last year. McHenry was up 58%.
And Cook County saw a shocking 400% increase.
“It’s more powerful and stronger than heroin, but it has the same effect,” says Dennis Wichern, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA here in Chicago. “So many of the users try to gravitate to fentanyl to get the super high, as near death as they can get, without overdosing or dying.”
Problem is, that narrow line is drawn even smaller because the drug is so powerful.
“Fentanyl is five to a hundred times more powerful than morphine,” Wichern notes. “If people use fentanyl in its pure form, they are going to overdose and die!”
At the U.S. Mail facility at O’Hare, NBC5 Investigates watched as thousands of parcels of mail from international flights were unloaded onto conveyor belts to be x-rayed. Some otherwise nondescript parcels stood out immediately to U.S. Customs agents watching the screens.
“So this is fentanyl,” said Customs and Border Protection port director Matthew Davies, pointing at one image. “It’s a powdery substance which comes up orange on our screen because of the density.”
Davies said parcels like that are opened in the facility and field-tested immediately. But because fentanyl is so toxic, agents don bio-hazard gear to perform the tests.
“This is much more deadly than heroin,” he said.
Nobody knows that more than Susan Moore. Last year, her 22 year old daughter, who grew up in the suburbs attending Girl Scouts and dance class, died of a fentanyl overdose.
“I had no idea what fentanyl was,” Moore told NBC5. “After the toxicology report came back, I mean it was at least two or three times the amount that can kill someone!”
Moore says she attends a support group of parents affected by heroin and other opioids. And more and more, it’s fentanyl which is bringing parents to their door.
“Yes, we have every week, unfortunately,” she says. “I think I was the first person in the group that had a fentanyl overdose when I came, and that was a year ago. And now there are at least three or four more than have come in where their child has died of a fentanyl overdose.”
The Centers for Disease Control says Illinois is one of nine states where deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl were up more than 70% in 2015.
“Fentanyl is so much more powerful and so much more addicting than heroin,” says Michael Young, a former 20 year heroin user whose brother was the first registered fentanyl death in McHenry County. “You see people struggling with addiction that this drug is out there and you’ll die from it---it goes right past them. It doesn’t faze them!”
Through his organization Not One More, Young offers rescue and treatment for opioid users. He gets the calls day and night.
“You see five in a week---how did we get to five in a week when we were at two a month?” he asks. “I just went through a week where two people I know died.”
Susan Moore agrees. She’s active in the support group Live4Lali. And she hopes by telling her story, more parents are made aware.
“I want them to know that there is a problem, there is a problem,” she says. “I don’t want to scare anybody, but it could happen to your kid. It could!”
Back at O’Hare, the Customs agents say that while the majority of fentanyl comes into Chicago thru conventional channels, dealers seem to be trying to see how much they can get shipped directly from the labs in China.
“There was an increase of some fentanyl that we saw in 2006,” says Davies. “But not as much as we’ve seen in the last year or two. We see it a lot!”