Fentanyl found in majority of heroin, opioid-related overdoses in 2017

As the number of fatal overdoses continues to rise in Harford County, so does the use of synthetic fentanyl, according to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. Above, the overdose tally board outside the Sheriff's Office headquarters in Bel Air in late December 2017.
As the number of fatal overdoses continues to rise in Harford County, so does the use of synthetic fentanyl, according to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. Above, the overdose tally board outside the Sheriff's Office headquarters in Bel Air in late December 2017. (Aegis file/BSMG)

As the number of fatal overdoses continues to rise in Harford County, so does use of the synthetic fentanyl, according to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.

In Harford in 2017, 81 people — mostly white men in their mid-30s — died from an overdose of heroin or other opioid, most of which contained fentanyl, Capt. Lee Dunbar, commander of the Harford County Narcotics Task Force, said.


The task force investigates all fatal opioid-related overdoses in Harford County.

Harford County recorded 450 overdoses from heroin or other opioids in 2017, according to Sheriff’s Office data. In 2016, there were 290 overdoses, 56 of which were fatal.


“Other than the obvious increase that we’ve had, the increases in the fentanyl” stand out, Dunbar said. “We’re seeing more and more fentanyl and less of heroin.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin.

The narcotics task force has toxicology reports on 76 of the 81 fatal overdoses in 2017 and of those 76, all but five contained at least one fentanyl analog, he said.

“We’re seeing a drastic increase in fentanyl-related overdose deaths,” Dunbar said. “It comes down to the money, it’s a money driven business and fentanyl is cheaper than heroin for these dealers — a lot cheaper.”


A kilogram of heroin costs about $70,000, while a kilogram of fentanyl sells for somewhere between $3,500 and $5,000, he said.

A bill before the Maryland General Assembly would impose a prison sentence up to 30 years on anyone convicted of selling or providing heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil or other opioid to a minor that results in the minor’s death.

“Dealers are selling [fentanyl] for the same price as heroin,” Dunbar said.

Carfentanil, also a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, was found in four of the fatal overdoses, Dunbar said. The first was reported in May. That was the first time carfentanil had been seen in Harford.

The 2017 numbers are subject to change, pending additional toxicology reports the Sheriff’s Office gets, Cristie Kahler, director of public information for the Sheriff’s Office, said.

As of Monday, 50 days into 2018, the county had reported 49 overdoses, nine of which have been fatal, according to the Sheriff’s Office. That’s about one overdose per day. The agency keeps a weekly tally of overdoses at all three precincts as well as its website, www.harfordsheriff.org. Other local police agencies also have signs outside their main buildings showing the number of overdoses and the number of fatalities.

Also on the rise in 2017 was the use of cocaine cut with fentanyl, Dunbar said.

“There’s a lot we have to learn about that because [cocaine] is a completely different drug than heroin,” he said.

Heroin is considered a “downer” used to relieve anxiety, stress or depression, while cocaine “is on the opposite end of the spectrum,” taken as an “upper” and a stimulant, Dunbar said.

He likened the combination of cocaine and fentanyl to the “speedballs” of the 1970s.

Cocaine-fentanyl overdoses are up about 40 percent across Maryland, Dunbar said. At least two cases have been reported in Harford by the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, which treated two patients, both of whom survived.

Dunbar said he has heard stories from relatives of people who have died as a result of cocaine cut with fentanyl and the users had no idea the drugs were mixed.

“Understanding why these dealers are doing that is something we have to look into, because we know a lot of cocaine users are not anticipating their cocaine being cut with fentanyl,” Dunbar said.

There’s obviously a market for it, he said, but dealers could also be cutting the more expensive cocaine with less expensive fentanyl to stretch their product.

The Harford County Narcotics Task Force stands to retain nearly $325,000 of the money seized in December from a suspected Baltimore City heroin dealer, an agency representative said this week.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about the trends, but law enforcement is actively looking at it because it’s alarming,” Dunbar said. “It could bring a whole other set of users into this opioid epidemic.”

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said the county administration will persevere in its fight to quell the heroin epidemic, despite increasing numbers.

“We try to remind people, this is going to be a long haul. This is not a thing where I think you’ll see change in one to two years, it’s a 10-year process,” Glassman said.

The county has taken a three-pronged approach in fighting the epidemic: educating the younger generation; enforcement; and treatment and recovery for addicts, he said.

“I think we have a good plan. We will continue to stay at our public education for young people, treatment and recovery for people caught up in it and support for the Sheriff’s Office with the enforcement piece,” Glassman said.

The next battle, he said, will be providing support to people whom he said “make it through the tunnel.” They are addicts who successfully “come out on the other side” and need housing, credit repair and employment.

“That’s our other big challenge, to gear up to provide those benefits to people who survive,” Glassman said.

Demographics change little

The areas where overdose deaths occurred shifted slightly from 2016 to 2017, though the largest number of deaths were still concentrated in the greater Bel Air area and the Route 40 corridor, the most populated areas of the county.

In 2017, 19 of the 81 fatal overdoses were reported in the Edgewood ZIP code, where only five died in 2016, according to the data.

The narcotics task force couldn’t find a definitive reason for the hike in overdose deaths in Edgewood, Dunbar said.

In 2016, the 21014 ZIP code in Bel Air was the deadliest area, with 11 fatal overdoses. Combined with deaths in the 21015 Bel Air South ZIP code, there were 15 fatals overdoses that year.

Eighteen people fatally overdosed in the combined Bel Air area ZIPs in 2017 — 11 in 21014 and seven in 21015.

Aberdeen was the site of 10 fatal overdoses, nine were reported in Abingdon and seven were reported in Havre de Grace in 2017, according to the Sheriff’s Office data.

Five fatal overdoses were reported in 21015, Forest Hill; three in 21018, Joppa, and 21047, Fallston; two in 21084, Jarrettsville; and one each in 21161 (White Hall), 21154 (Street), 21028 (Churchville), 21132 (Pylesville) and 21160 (Whiteford).

Ten people also fatally overdosed in Aberdeen in 2016, when the Joppa area recorded six fatal overdoses.

The gender of fatal overdose victims in 2017 was overwhelmingly male — 67 of 81, a rate of 82 percent. A similar percentage in 2016 were male.

They were also overwhelmingly white. In 2017, 90 percent of the fatal overdose victims were white. Of the 67 white men, 61 were white, four were Hispanic and two were black.

In 2016, all the women who overdosed were white; in 2017, 12 of the women were white, two were black, according to the data.

Harford County will join the growing list of Maryland Counties in suing opioid manufactures, distributors and local subscribers for their alleged roles in spurring an abuse crisis that has reached epidemic proportions, County Executive Barry Glassman said Tuesday.

The average victim was slightly older in 2017, at 32.38 years old, than in 2016, at 31.91 years old.


The year ahead

The narcotics task force will continue to investigate heroin and opioid-related overdoses in Harford and target the dealers, while trying to evolve as much as it can, Dunbar said.

“We are open to any idea that may work,” he said.

Already in 2018, Harford is on pace to match its 2017 numbers.

“Our primary focus is enforcement, that’s what we’re structured to do,” Dunbar said.

While they will help treat the addict, “we will target the dealer and the drug trafficking organization, to try and identify those main sources of supply.”

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