CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In the more than two years since a Cabell County woman last used heroin in Huntington, she said the drug has undergone a significant, deadly change with the introduction of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil.
“It was barely coming around before, but now, at this point, it is everywhere,” said Sarah, a Barboursville woman who’s been in drug treatment at Charleston’s Recovery Point since Dec. 28, 2016.
“I know at least half the people I know here that I have been overdosed to the point of being ‘Narcaned’ and been in the hospital have gotten to the hospital and they didn’t even test positive for opiates, it was strictly fentanyl.”
That fentanyl, she said, was being sold as heroin.
Recovery Point was the host site for a Wednesday roundtable discussion led by 3rd District Congressman Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.), a candidate for U.S. Senate.
Around the table were first responders, federal agents, treatment officials, doctors and others offering specifics on steps the federal government could potentially take to address what Jenkins called the “epidemic of all epidemics.”
“It’s a killer,” Jenkins said. “This is the most challenging public health and safety issue of our time.”
Participants included Karl Colder, special agent in charge of the Washington Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration which includes the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
He said West Virginia is at the “epicenter of the receiving end of the problem” where “at any given time sources of product,” the fentanyl and carfentanil, can change.
Bruce Ohr, associate deputy attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department, told Jenkins many synthetic drugs arrive in the U.S. via mail from international locations like China and then are distributed to user markets, including West Virginia.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department announced the unsealing of indictments of two Chinese nationals for fentanyl distributions in cases out of Mississippi and North Dakota. Both involved synthetic drugs sold online.
Investigators that used be “street agents” have had to become “cyber agents,” Ohr said, while trying to track drugs when formulations are changing monthly.
“It’s not slowing down,” Kenny Burner, director of the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program, said of the influx of synthetic opioids in the region.
Next week, members of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee will get a status update on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, also called CARA, and discuss other federal efforts to combat the opioid crisis.
Those on the Charleston panel recommended broader federal schedulings or classifications of fentanyl and carfentanil to cover all potential variations; better collections of data to track mailings; more naloxone price controls; improved coordination among the local, state and federal levels and additional resources for those efforts along with education and treatment.
In Charleston Wednesday, there were continued calls for President Donald Trump to issue a promised national emergency declaration for the opioid crisis.
Earlier this week, President Trump indicated such a move could happen as early as next week to open up federal resources.
Marie Beaver, executive director of Rea of Hope which offers alcohol and drug addiction recovery services to women, said it’s needed.
Sober for 32 years and now working with many people whose mothers were in treatment a decade ago, she called this drug epidemic “the worst she’s ever seen.”
In the past, “People weren’t dying every day like they are with this epidemic,” Beaver said.
“It just seems like the numbers are so much higher, it’s affecting so many more people. Even heroin by itself did not bring in the kind of numbers for people that are suffering from this disease and the numbers of families that are being affected.”
Sarah, who continues to work the steps every day at Recovery Point, her 23rd drug treatment facility, agreed.
“It’s whole different level. It’s not what it used to be. It’s insane,” she said.
She was asked about the strength and questionable composition of the fentanyl currently available on street levels: “Does that scare you at all?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “It’s definitely an incentive to never go back.”