Opioid Addiction: Pathway of a Potent Killer

This is the first in a series of in-depth reports from 10 On Your Side dealing with the opioid crisis. We will examine several aspects of this epidemic through the personal stories of people in Hampton Roads each Wednesday through May 24.

HAMPTON ROADS, Va.  (WAVY) – “It's the day before Christmas eve and I don't know if I'm going to be burying my son the Tuesday after Christmas.”

Pamela Person remembers the day last December when she got the horrible news her son Devon had overdosed.

“We know there was alcohol. There were signs of opioids -- heroin, but certainly the most important and the most serious was the fentanyl.”

Devon was with cousins out of state. His reaction was so severe they didn't know what to do.

“Now they're all panicking, and no one's calling 911. So they dropped him off. They essentially dropped him off like a bag of trash, and called somebody in the emergency room and drove off.”

Doctors resuscitated him, put him on a ventilator, and ultimately saved his life. He was one of the lucky ones.

In 2016, more than 600 Virginians died from drugs laced with fentanyl -- a tenfold increase since 2011.

A local expert says when someone dies from fentanyl, it actually increases its allure.

Dr. David Langille is an addiction treatment specialist at Right Path Treatment Center of Virginia Beach.

“If someone dies from an overdose, other users in the community will think, 'Wow, that must be some really good stuff.'”

“People who are using [fentanyl] don’t know what's in it,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in an interview with investigative reporter Chris Horne. “They don't know how much they're getting, and it can kill immediately.”

Herring talks about fight against opioids in Norfolk

Hampton Roads is part of a public health crisis in neighborhoods and communities across the country.

“Right now in Hampton Roads fentanyl is a huge problem,” Herring said.

In 2011, you could count the fentanyl deaths on one hand in any of the seven cities. Then, the numbers exploded over the next five years. From one death to 27 in Chesapeake, four to 45 in Virginia Beach, zero to 55 in Norfolk.

Overall, fentanyl deaths in the region went from just 10 five years ago to 179 last year.

“We're talking about a substance that is 40 to 50 times stronger than heroin and more potent than heroin,” said DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Michael Barbuti.

Heroin traffickers realized fentanyl could supercharge their product with greater potency.

Author Sam Quinones wrote “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” He researched heroin trafficking by Mexican cartels. 10 On Your Side asked him how fentanyl is changing the way they do business.

“It's a stronger high, and it's a very easy drug to smuggle because it's so small, and so little of it will make so much dope.”

The DEA says fentanyl has made the logistics of producing fatally spiked heroin so much easier.

“It's cheaper, and it's synthetically produced in a lab,” Barbuti said. “There's no growing season, so you don't have to plant more opium poppies or harvest opium poppies. You can make it any time.”

Federal authorities say most fentanyl is made in China, and then it reaches the streets in one of two ways.

“The cartels either mix it with heroin in Mexico or send it directly to the U.S. and it's mixed in with heroin and other substances here,” Barbuti said.

“The dealers, they call it Little Diablo, the little devil,” Langille said. “They add fentanyl to the heroin to jack up the potency of the hit.”

Once it's mixed, suppliers move most if it either down from New York, or up from Atlanta.

“As little as two milligrams can be deadly if inhaled or absorbed through the skin,” Barbuti said.

Pamela Person’s son Devon went through recovery, moved away and started a new job just a few weeks ago. She’s still troubled by nearly losing her son to the potent substance.

“Fentanyl was in his system and it is so powerful. The fact that he is alive is a miracle in and of itself.”


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