ELKTON — Back in March, agents with the Cecil County Drug Task Force raided a Port Deposit-area residence and confiscated what appeared to be 127 oxycodone pills, a powerful prescription opiate that is typically preferred by heroin addicts.
“The pills were blue and were stamped with the correct markings to look like oxy. We thought it was oxy,” recalled Maryland State Police Sgt. Chris Spinner, a CCDTF supervisor.
On May 18, however, when the analysis of the seized pills came back from the drug lab, CCDTF investigators learned that they actually had confiscated lookalikes comprised mostly of fentanyl — a manmade substance that is 100 times stronger than heroin and much more potentially lethal.
“It’s the first time we’d ever seen fentanyl in the form of bogus oxy,” Spinner said, adding, “I don’t know whether this is the start of a trend or if this is an isolated incident. A day after we got our lab analysis back, an alert about bogus oxy was put out.”
The alert referenced by Spinner was issued on May 18 by Maryland’s Opiod Operational Command Center, which cautioned residents that counterfeit oxycodone pills had surfaced in Cecil County and elsewhere in the state.
“Bogus oxycodone tablets containing fentanyl (blue or white in color) have been found in Queen Anne’s, Cecil, and Anne Arundel counties. Should any suspicious tablets be found, we ask that you contact your local law enforcement agency,” the alert read.
Although investigators have not come across any other fentanyl-filled, fake oxycodone pills in Cecil County since the March confiscation, that discovery adds yet another layer of concern for police and health officials battling the heroin problem here.
“Fentanyl was present in 80 percent of the heroin overdoses that we’ve had here this year,” said Raymond Lynn, who, as Cecil County heroin coordinator, has been charting this county’s fatal and non-fatal heroin overdoses since January, in addition to keeping statistics on numerous related topics.
As of Thursday morning, according to Lynn, 21 people in Cecil County had died from heroin or heroin-related overdoses since Jan. 1.
In addition, 161 other people in this county survived their overdoses during that five-month period, he said.
Moreover, he added, of the 106 occasions that police, paramedics or citizens were able to administer naloxone, a drug better known by its brand name Narcan that reverses the effects of opiates, to overdose patients, 93 times it proved successful.
“That’s 93 lives saved with Narcan — 93 people who would not be here today if not for Narcan,” Lynn emphasized. “The other 13 already were too far gone by the time the Narcan was administered.”
Overall, fatal and non-fatal heroin overdoses here have leveled off somewhat after a notably bleak January, when seven of the 51 recorded heroin overdoses killed the users. (There actually were 57 overdose cases in January, eight of which resulted in death, but six of them involved other drugs.)
Then in February, five of the 35 county heroin overdose victims died, Lynn reported. February stats showed 16 fewer heroin overdoses than in January while only two fewer fatal overdoses. (There were four additional non-fatal overdoses recorded in February involving other drugs, bringing that month’s overall overdose total to 39.)
March saw six fatal overdoses and 28 non-fatal overdoses, Lynn said. Of the overall 34 overdoses, 23 involved heroin and two were linked to other opiates, he added.
In April, when a total of 27 overdoses was recorded, 15 of which involved heroin, the number of fatal overdoses dropped to three — half of the figure logged during March, according to Lynn.
May ended with 25 overdoses recorded in Cecil County for the month — none of which resulted in death, he reported.
“This is the first month that we did not record any fatal overdoses,” Lynn commented.
As for the confiscation of the 127 fentanyl-filled, bogus oxycodone pills here in March, Lynn, like Spinner, is not sure if that recovery is an anomaly or a sign of more to come.
“It’s all about making money. They make the fentanyl in labs in Mexico, which is where all the drugs come from. It’s much cheaper than heroin and it’s 100 times stronger,” Lynn said.
Fentanyl is mixed with heroin to stretch a dealer’s supply, which increases his or her profits, or it is sold as heroin under false pretenses.
People deep in addiction will pursue fentanyl because heroin ultimately becomes a drug of diminishing returns.
“Addicts seek that greater high,” Lynn said. “But what happens is the body develops a tolerance and it takes more and more. After a while, it’s not even about getting high anymore. It’s about maintaining that person’s well-being. They take it just to keep from getting sick.”
According to Spinner, dealers prefer selling fentanyl because it increases their profit margins.
“A dealer can sell an oxycodone pill for $30 and make a $10 profit. Pills usually sell for about $1 per milligram,” Spinner explained. “But when a dealer sells bogus oxy, he may only have $5 to $8 invested in the fentanyl used to pack a pill and he still sells it at the regular price, and that increases his profit.”
Echoing Lynn, Spinner reported that addicts want fentanyl because it is 100 times stronger than heroin — and they disregard the fact that it is potentially much more deadly.
“It’s unfathomable for us, but when word gets out that someone has died from a particular stamp (marking on heroin package), that stamp will sell hot for a while,” Spinner said, explaining that the mindset of addicts makes them believe that, unlike those who had fatally overdosed, they can handle the stronger dose.
CCDTF agents confiscated the 127 bogus oxycodone pills on March 2 while raiding a residence in the unit block of Charles Court near Port Deposit, where, earlier that day, investigators tracked down a vehicle that purportedly had led police on a high-speed chase, Spinner reported.
During the court-approved search of that residence, CCDTF agents confiscated slightly more than a pound of cocaine and two handguns, in addition to the 127 bogus oxy pills, according to Spinner, who noted, “We found the pills in a bag in the toilet. They (the suspects) were trying to flush them.”
Investigators arrested and charged Port Deposit-area residents Pache Lasarah Gupton, 20; Alishawaine Raheen Monk, 26; and Antonio Lawrence Stewart, 21, in connection with the drugs confiscated from that Charles Court residence, according to Spinner.
(In an unrelated criminal case, Monk had stood accused of fatally shooting his stepfather inside their Port Deposit-area home in February 2014. However, after a judge ruled that key pieces of state evidence were inadmissible, prosecutors dropped their first-degree murder case against Monk in August 2015.)
In the past few weeks, Lynn has charted at least three non-fatal overdose cases that he considers rare amid the numerous heroin-related incidents in Cecil County.
“We had one person who overdosed on LSD. That is something we haven’t seen in a long while around here,” Lynn said, referring to that individual’s overconsumption of, or bad reaction, to the hallucinogen.
Lynn also reported that he tallied two “huffing cases,” instances where the people overdosed after sniffing compressed air from a canned product used to clean computer keyboards.
“It actually is more of a poisoning than an overdose because it (the compressed air) is not a drug,” Lynn noted. “At least one of those people was trying to find an alternative to heroin and alcohol.”
As of Thursday, Lynn had not received any reports in Cecil County regarding carfentanil, a tranquilizer that is 10,000 more potent than morphine and is used on elephants and other heavy game, despite its appearance in neighboring areas.
“We have not seen carfentanil in Cecil County, but I know it is all around us,” Lynn said, adding, “It’s a thousand times stronger than fentanyl. It can be absorbed through the skin, and a grain or two will kill you.”
Included in his most recent roundup, Lynn reported that, under a new policy started in March, every person who overdoses in Cecil County is automatically referred to the Cecil County Health Department in an effort to provide drug treatment and counseling.
Ken Collins, addiction services division director for the Cecil County Health Department, reported that 51 overdose survivors have been referred to the Outreach to Overdose Survivors (OSO) Program since early March and 36 of them provided contact information.
From there, Collins further outlined, the agency’s peer recovery specialists and overdose prevention coordinator made 71 phones calls to those 36 survivors who provided contact information.
“Staff successfully connected with 10 of the 36 by phone. During our phone outreach, we encouraged treatment and offered information on how to access services, support group meetings and related resources,” Collins said.
As a result, Collins added, three of those 10 people entered treatment programs. Two of them entered residential treatment programs while the other began medication-assisted treatment, he noted.
In an effort to prevent future overdoses, the health department continues to encourage all concerned community members to participate in free overdose response training offered at 6 p.m. every Monday, excluding holidays, at the Health Department at 401 Bow St. in Elkton.
Additional training times can be scheduled by calling Katricia Thompson, overdose prevention coordinator, at 443-245-3785. People also can visit RewriteYourScript.org for additional related information.