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Fentanyl called 'public health crisis' in Minnesota

An overdose involving fentanyl is even more terrifying than other opioid overdoses, experts say. "When someone describes an overdose to us, if they say the person injected and they immediately hit the dirt ... then you know it's fentanyl-involved...

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An overdose involving fentanyl is even more terrifying than other opioid overdoses, experts say.

"When someone describes an overdose to us, if they say the person injected and they immediately hit the dirt ... then you know it's fentanyl-involved," said Maggie Kazel, director of the Rural AIDS Action Network in Duluth, which operates a needle exchange for drug addicts.

With increasing frequency, the results are fatal, leading Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm to proclaim on Monday that "the opioid epidemic in Minnesota has also become a fentanyl public health crisis."

The numbers reflect her statement: The health department reported on Monday that the number of deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl increased 74 percent from 2016 to 2017 in Minnesota, according to preliminary data. Of the 172 such deaths reported in 2017, 156 of them had fentanyl listed on the death certificate.

The rise in fentanyl-related deaths occurs at the same time that some progress is taking place in other areas involving opioids, the health department reported. The number of heroin deaths actually decreased by nearly 30 percent from 2016 to 2017. But overall, the number of opioid-involved deaths increased from 675 to 694, a fact the health department attributes to fentanyl.

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It's a problem Duluth police are well aware of.

"The use of fentanyl in this region is on the rise, and we expect this to continue," said Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force, in an email. "Street opioids like heroin are being laced with fentanyl in an effort to increase potency and profits."

Earlier this month, Michael Clark of Chicago was convicted of possessing more than 80 grams of fentanyl with intent to distribute more than 2½ years ago in his room at Superior's Baywalk Inn. He had bragged on social media that the fentanyl-laced drugs he was selling were so potent his customers were literally dropping dead, the Chicago Tribune reported.

"We killed like 4 ppl," he wrote on Facebook in October 2015, according to court records cited by the Chicago newspaper.

Maggie Kazel - no relation to Jeff - said she tells clients about fentanyl strips, which are available online and are used to determine if fentanyl is present in drugs. She urges them to have a supply of naloxone (sold under the brand name Narcan), which is an antidote to an opioid overdose.

She also encourages clients who use opioids to take them "very slowly" and to never be alone when doing so, Kazel said.

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