AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department is sending out a warning regarding recent overdoses possibly related to the drug fentanyl. Fentanyl is a drug used to treat people with chronic pain or long-lasting pain conditions. It is also sometimes mixed with heroin by drug cartels, making the product stronger.
Police say they are currently investigating a series of overdose deaths that occurred last week. While authorities are still trying to determine the exact drugs involved, they believe fentanyl may be involved in a few of the recent deaths.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate similar to heroin, but can be 30 to 50 times more powerful. Medical professionals say the effects are similar to the pain relief of morphine. The drug can come in the form of a pill, powder, patch or liquid.
Because fentanyl is cheaper and stronger than heroin, Mexican drug cartels are lacing heroin with it, and users aren’t sure how much they are getting with each dose.
“We never know what the quality or quantity is at the street level, because there’s no quality control in those communities,” said Mark Kinzly, with the Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative. “What you get on a Wednesday from one guy, you go back to that same guy on a Friday, may be a completely different purity and kill him.”
Kinzly manages a sober living home in Austin, and is in long-term recovery for addiction. He advocates for drugs like Naloxone to be more readily available. Naloxone reverses the effects of an opioid overdose and has saved thousands of lives, including Kinzly’s.
“I’m someone whose been rescued twice by this medication,” said Kinzly. “That allowed me to get to a place where I got a message of hope, where I’m able to raise my child again, be a productive member of society. Dead people don’t get to do that.”
Kinzly says when users are administered Naloxone, it sends them into immediate withdrawal. He says research shows that when it’s more readily available, drugs like Naloxone lead to less risky behavior, and connect users to services at a higher rate. He says they are most effective in the hands of friends and family members, who are typically the first ones to respond to an overdose.
Some of the men in the sober living home are recovering heroin addicts, and know how deadly fentanyl can be.
“From what I’ve seen there are a lot of people who are just going out to try this for the first time, have tried some pills and hear it’s basically the same thing,” said Nick Biebelhausen, a recovering addict. “They go out, try it a few times and then that one time happens to be their last.”
Kinzly says it’s happening in towns you might least expect.
“We always think of the seedy, back streets of major cities. And if I was to take you to the majority of where opioid overdoses are happening in our country, it would be places like, and this is no dig on these communities, places like Westlake, places like Georgetown, places where affluent, very well-to-do communities are being affected like this, like we’ve never seen in this country.”
“Since it’s very easy to manufacture, places in China may make and sell it to Mexican drug cartels who then mix the fentanyl with heroin or totally different drugs like cocaine,” said Kimberly Kjome, MD, assistant professor at Seton Hospital in a press release.
Kinzley says Naloxone is just one step of the equation for getting deadly overdose numbers down. That plus more resources, education, and messages of hope.