Carfentanil, a substance used to tranquilize elephants that is 100 times more potent than the drug that killed Prince, is hitting the Washington, D.C., suburbs, adding the region to a growing list of communities nationwide reporting fatal overdoses linked to the exotic and toxic sedative, the Washington Post reports. The first three cases have been reported in Maryland, alarming local health and law enforcement officials in a state of emergency combating the opioid crisis. On Monday, a Virginia man pleaded guilty in a drug distribution case after selling $100 of carfentanil-laced heroin to a 21-year-old found dead by her mother on the bathroom floor of their suburban Washington home.
In recent weeks, police departments across the U.S. announced carfentanil-related fatalities, including cases in Illinois, Colorado, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Law enforcement officials fear the growing lethal overdoses tied to the synthetic opioid marks a new normal in the nation’s heroin epidemic. “We have never seen death like we do now,” said Tom Synan, head of Hamilton County Heroin Coalition in Ohio, which was among the first spots to discover a string of carfentanil deaths during a week in which the county’s overdoses more than doubled. “It shows how callous these drug dealers are,” he said. “It has no human use whatsoever and they’re putting it out on the street and wreaking havoc.” The nefarious substance is difficult to detect and so powerful that an amount equivalent to a few grains of salt can be deadly. It requires more aggressive treatment to reverse a typical opiate overdose. First responders are getting burned out answering back-to-back overdose calls and worry about falling ill after exposures to synthetic opioids while answering calls. The drug is so new that some medical examiners don’t have the tools to detect it in autopsies.