Nearly 50 years ago, America declared war on drugs. Since then, our hyper-focus on the existential threats of nuclear weapons, terrorism, global warming, etc. we tragically forgot about the half-century long conflict that claimed more American lives last year than were lost during the entire Vietnam War.
“If this pace continues, I’m not really sure what we’re going to do,” said Montgomery County, Ohio, coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger. “We had 13 (bodies) yesterday, and 12 of them were overdoses.”
In 2016, he expanded his cooler once because space for 36 wasn’t enough. It now holds 42. “It’s full every night,” he said.
When drug deaths rise, Harshbarger rents refrigerated trailers to store the bodies.
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its many analogues are killing users at a rate Harshbarger and others say they’ve never seen. “I’m looking at 2,900 autopsies, 2,000 of them overdoses,” he said. “I can’t operate at that capacity.”
His office handled fewer than 2,000 autopsies total in 2016.
Increasing deaths are traced to carfentanil, a synthetic opioid generally used to tranquilize large mammals, like elephants. Five grams of the drug is enough to create 50,000 individual stamp bags which are each sold to users. One grain is enough for a high. Two grains can kill.
These strong synthetic drugs can be inadvertently absorbed through the skin or inhaled as micro-particles.
In East Liverpool, Ohio a police officer overdosed on May 12, 2017 when he patted down a man who was covered in fentanyl powder. Patrolman Chris Green was assisting with an arrest of a man suspected of having drugs in his car. Green patted the man down, not realizing until after that fentanyl powder was on the man’s shirt. Finding powder on his own shirt, Green used his hand to brush it off.
Within seconds, he was overdosing. It took four doses of Narcan to revive the officer completely.
“What used to get people high, that same dosage, as long as there’s fentanyl in there, it’s putting people into overodoses,” said Karen Hacker, Allegheny County Pennsylvania Health Department executive director. “It’s very, very tragic in a lot of ways,” she said. “We’re hearing people in the street say things like, ‘Now people can overdose the first time they try it.'”
“Public officials needed to head this off when it began, but they didn’t,” saidHamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco. “What are we doing? We’re going to have an entire generation without parents.”
Orphans are among the worst consequences of war. And this war, a war we’re losing, promises to be no different. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2015.
In 2016, the death toll in Pennsylvania alone was nearly 4,500, with fentanyl and, increasingly, its offshoots, driving the deaths. That total is more than the number of Americans killed during 14 years of the war in Iraq.