Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used for years to treat severe pain or to manage post-operative pain, has been in the news in recent years due to a sharp upward surge in drug overdose deaths attributable to an illicit form of the drug that is sweeping the nation.
Federal authorities in Little Rock said Arkansas has not been able to avoid that surge.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, drug overdoses claimed 546 lives in Arkansas, putting the state 37th in the nation for overdose deaths, at 19.1 deaths due to overdose per 100,000 people. The CDC said that is a 41% increase from the previous year.
“Once fentanyl came on the scene it ushered in the deadliest era we’ve seen yet when it comes to drugs,” said Jarad Harper, the assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration district office in Little Rock. “Drug overdoses are now the leading killer of Americans between the age of 18 and 45, and 70% of those deaths are caused by synthetic opioids like fentanyl.”
Illegally manufactured fentanyl first began showing up in drugs such as heroin and cocaine a few years ago to increase the euphoric effects of those drugs, but it is now being found in counterfeit prescription drugs, often present without the user’s knowledge and often with fatal results. According to the CDC, drug overdoses claimed the lives of a record 107,622 people in the U.S. in 2021, with nearly 72,000 of those deaths — 67% of the total — attributable to synthetic opioids.
According to the CDC, fentanyl is some 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin and morphine, and as little as 2 milligrams can be fatal.
DEA officials warned last December that criminal drug networks in Mexico are mass-producing deadly fentanyl and fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills using chemicals sourced largely from China. These fake prescription pills are designed to appear identical to legitimate prescription drugs — such as Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, Adderall, Xanax and other medicines — and have been found in every state in the country and often contain deadly doses of fentanyl. DEA has determined that four out of 10 fake prescription pills tested contain lethal amounts of fentanyl.
In 2021 alone, the DEA said, it seized enough fentanyl to provide a lethal dose of the drug to every man, woman and child in the United States, much of it in the form of fake prescription pills, and the onslaught of fentanyl hasn’t let up in 2022.
Harper said with millions of fake prescription pills and tons of powdered fentanyl being brought into the U.S., the problem crosses into all walks of American life.
He called fentanyl “the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered.”
He said most of the fentanyl coming into the U.S. is manufactured by one of two Mexican drug cartels, the Sinaloa and CJNG cartels, using raw materials obtained from China.
“They synthesize these massive quantities of fentanyl, they press them into these fake pills that look like legitimate medications,” Harper said.
“They’re known for selling these products to people who may not even be looking for fentanyl. That’s the most alarming thing to me … that these pills are out there and they look almost identical.”
The counterfeit pills, Harper said, are coming into the country by the millions.
“We’re working hard here at the DEA to get our arms around it but we’re not going to arrest our way out of this,” Harper said.
“It’s going to take more than a state effort and more than law enforcement. We’re trying to pull in experts in prevention and dependency, medical examiners, prosecutor’s offices at the state and federal levels … it’s going to take a full-court press to get our arms around this thing.”
At the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Little Rock, Chris Givens, the deputy criminal chief, handles a large caseload of fentanyl cases and recently headed the prosecution of Jemel Foster, who was convicted by a jury last July of distribution of fentanyl resulting in death and faces a possible life sentence when he comes up for sentencing later this year.
Givens said so far this year, the office is handling five cases of fentanyl distribution resulting in death, three of which he is handling personally.
Several more cases, he said, are under investigation and could result in indictments in coming months.
What makes the cases more complex than simple trafficking cases, he said, is the requirement to tie the fentanyl taken by the victim to the person charged.
“It’s not enough to prove they sold fentanyl,” Givens said. “We have to prove they sold the fentanyl to the victim, that it was their fentanyl that resulted in death rather than fentanyl they may have gotten somewhere else. That was the defense Jemel Foster tried to use and the jury didn’t buy it.”
THE HUMAN COST
The human cost in lives and heartbreak of loved ones left behind is inestimable. Marti Riley of Marion lost her 22-year-old daughter, Laura Jane Riley, known as “Lolly,” to a fentanyl overdose on March 26, 2021. She said Lolly had begun suffering migraine headaches some time before her death but was unable to obtain prescription remedies for her condition.
“I think she started getting illegal pain meds,” Riley said, surmising that the path her daughter traveled that led to her death began with the debilitating headaches that left her desperate to find relief. In the months before Lolly’s death, Riley said, she began noticing some behavioral changes.
“It wasn’t anything I could put my finger on,” she said. “I was trying to get her into a rehab and she wouldn’t go, she was an adult and wouldn’t commit.”
Despite urging from her two brothers and her sister, Riley said, her youngest daughter could not be persuaded to seek help.
On March 26, 2021, Riley said, she had taken some things for her daughter to Lolly’s West Memphis apartment.
“I started banging on the front door and no answer, so I walked around to the back and started banging and no answer,” she said. “I thought maybe she’d walked to Walmart, because she didn’t have a vehicle … so I left and went to the gym, and I hadn’t been there 10 minutes when the police called me.”
Riley described her daughter as kind and considerate to everyone.
“She was a beautiful girl inside and out,” Riley said. “She loved babies, and if there was one in the room, that’s where she was.”
Laura Sipes of Cabot lost her son, Jordan Michael Laughy, to a fentanyl overdose at the age of 27 on April 29, 2020. She said Jordan had struggled with addiction for years after the brother of a girlfriend introduced him to heroin several years before.
“I know he smoked some pot in high school and got in trouble for it, the normal stuff,” Sipes said.
“He met a girl from Batesville and that really changed his life. Her brother was a heroin addict and he introduced it to my son. After that, [Jordan] said ‘I can’t go back, I don’t know how to go back. I can’t stop thinking about it. I want it all the time.’”
Sipes said she and her husband stuck by their son, sending him to rehab and monitoring his progress, and ironically, she said, at the time of his death Jordan appeared to be getting things together. But, she said, during a visit to Cabot to see his two children and their mother, he was offered — and accepted — heroin that turned out to be laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl.
“I found him that morning and tried to do CPR, but it was too late,” she said. “Then we discovered it was fentanyl and it had been put into what he thought was heroin.”
Despite her son’s struggles with addiction, Sipes said Jordan was a devoted father to his two children and an outgoing and friendly person.
“Jordan was everybody’s friend,” she said. “If you needed anything he’d give you the shirt off his back. He had this light about him and everybody loved him.”
JUST ONE PILL
Cassandra Flowers of Rogers said the feelings she has experienced since the death of her daughter, Cassie, at the age of 28 on Oct. 1, 2020, are something any parent should be able to understand.
“Do you have children?” Flowers asked. “That’s all you have to know right there. If you’re a parent,” she trailed off, then continued, angrily, “What’s happening with fentanyl is … it’s messed up.”
Flowers said that both Cassie and her twin brother, Alex, had always cautioned her about making sure all of her prescriptions were properly stored in the original prescription bottles and about taking any drug of unknown origin. But, Flowers said, Cassie had struggled with depression since her teens and had become dependent on the anti-anxiety medication Xanax.
On that October day, Flowers said, Cassie’s young son, Liam, was staying with his father and Cassie, staying at her parents’ home, took what she believed to be a Xanax pill from someone she trusted. Flowers learned the truth when the medical examiner’s report came back.
“The only things in her system were her Prozac, some baking soda, caffeine, and enough fentanyl to kill four people.” she said, sadly. “It wasn’t even Xanax. It wasn’t Xanax laced with fentanyl, it was something that somebody made in their garage in a pill press to look like Xanax.”
Flowers said she came home that evening to find her daughter’s body.
“I came in and I just thought she was asleep in the recliner but she was dead,” Flowers said, tearfully. “I just miss her so much. She was so amazing.”
Flowers said the stigma surrounding overdose deaths fails to take all the factors into consideration.