No Room for Bodies: Overdoses in Ohio

There is a scene from the 2003 movie The Core where hundreds of birds begin to fall to Earth, apparently dying mid-flight. It’s a quick scene, but I always remembered seeing it and thinking, “How can something go from able-to-fly to dead so quickly? It must be one extremely powerful force.” Even if the birds were sick and diseased, it seems insane that they would just die that fast. Now, in 2017, when I think about that scene, I think about opioid overdoses in America. Just like the birds that died mid-flight, hundreds of people are dying every day from opioid overdoses – just as quickly. However, although it’s the heroin and the prescription opioid pills that people are abusing, it’s the ‘aftermarket’ ingredients being laced into them lately that are the true killers, according to NBC. These are fentanyl and carfentanil, two of the most powerful opioids known to man. America has been in an opioid epidemic for years now. Just like in a military war, the body count is rising. In Ohio, the US state with the worst opioid problem of all, the body count is so high that the Montgomery County Coroner, Dr. Kent Harshbarger, is literally running out of room for the bodies. If you weren’t already aware of how bad the opioid epidemic is, that little tidbit should hit home.

New American Serial Killers

First, let’s talk about fentanyl and carfentanil. The first, fentanyl, is a synthetic opioid which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin. It’s used as a human medicine only during surgery as an anesthetic, and in incredibly tiny doses. There’s good reason for such care. Just a few grains of pure fentanyl can kill an adult person. Drug dealers, especially members of cartels, are fully aware of how potent fentanyl is. Unfortunately, they care about money and not the wellbeing of their clients. That’s why for years fentanyl has been being disguised as both opioid prescription pills and heroin. As a matter of fact, in 2014, fentanyl killed over 5,000 American people. In 2015, the death toll doubled to 10,000+ American people. The numbers for 2016 are not fully out yet, but a safe assumption is at least 10,000 more. Imagine a drug one hundred times more powerful than fentanyl. It would be approximately five thousand times stronger than heroin! Now, imagine dealers were also putting this drug into pills and heroin. Well, it’s all true. Carfentanil is the deadliest synthetic opioid known to man – NEVER used for human consumption. Actually, it’s only used as a tranquilizer for large mammals, such as elephants. The veterinarians that administer carfentanil have to wear protective gear in order to avoid exposure. Just go to Google, type in “carfentanil death,” and scroll. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also very alarming. Fentanyl and carfentanil are turning opioid abusers all over the US into the birds from The Core – from moving to permanently still, and in just an instant.

The Killers Live in Ohio

Although the synthetic opioid epidemic is nationwide, and even rampant in Canada, it’s Ohio that’s home to the worst of the worst. Last July, Ohio police seized a huge amount of heroin that was laced with carfentanil. Unfortunately, it was too late. Within two months, the city of Akron alone had over 140 carfentanil overdoses, Columbus had ten carfentanil overdoses in just nine hours, and another 200 citizens of Cincinnati overdosed this way. Fentanyl is actually the more prolific serial killer, but this is because of how much more widespread it is than carfentanil. Easier to synthetically produce, and presumably much cheaper, fentanyl is Ohio’s public enemy number one. The substance that ended the life of beloved musician Prince is currently ending well over one life per day in Ohio. In 2014, there were nearly 2,500 drug overdose deaths in the state. Over 500 of them were caused by fentanyl.

Fentanyl (AKA the Devil)

According to the Ohio Department of Mental Health, linked above, “Fentanyl drug reports based on law enforcement drug seizures increased by 300 percent in the U.S. from the second half of 2013 to the first half of 2014,” which is remarkable. We’re talking a tripling of arrests in six months or less. Fentanyl isn’t new, either. It’s been on the pharmaceutical market since the 1960s. What’s new is the online black market and China sells drug dealers a lot of fentanyl using it. American and Mexican drug cartels and/or big-time drug dealers buy fentanyl (and carfentanil) from China in bulk, and then either lace it into drugs or use it to create new drugs. Dealers are saving money at the cost of thousands of lives. This has been going on for years, and the Chinese government has long turned a blind eye. However, as of March 1st, China has banned the production of both fentanyl and carfentanil. “Until now, China had been an exasperatingly indecipherable key piece of the puzzle in the fight against fentanyl trafficking and catching those aggravating the worst addiction crisis to hit the United States,” reported Fox News in February, anticipating the upcoming ban. There seems to have been at least a little reduction in the fentanyl death rate since March, says Science Magazine, but tell that to Dr. Kent Harshbarger, coroner of Montgomery County, Ohio. It would be quite a hard sell. It happened last year as well, but not quite to the degree that it’s happening now, today, as this is written, as you read it. Dr. Harshbarger’s morgue is out of room for bodies.

An Overcrowded Morgue

ohio-overcrowded-morgue“If this pace continues, I’m not really sure what we’re going to do. We had thirteen yesterday and twelve of them were overdoses. It’s full every night. I’m looking at 2,900 autopsies – 2,000 of them overdoses. I can’t operate at that capacity.” These are the words of Dr. Harshbarger, as quoted by the Tribune Review. His office became overcrowded last year as well, and many bodies were sent to funeral homes. Refrigerated trucks were also used. Both methods are being used again. It’s the end of May, and Dr. Harshbarger has already exceeded last year’s autopsy total by 900. The number of total autopsies performed last year is the same as the number of this year’s overdose autopsies. That’s absolutely insane. The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office faces two incredibly difficult factors when performing synthetic opioid deaths. One is the obvious danger of the drug still being present, and the other is the immense emotional toll these autopsies have on staff. Here are the factors broken down:

The Danger

Consider this quote from Dr. Harshbarger, found in the Tribune Review article linked above: “Full protective clothing, gloves, and a face mask are used whenever working ‘powder cases’. At least two scientists must be present at all times during analysis. No one is permitted in the drug chemistry lab without proper protection. No food, no drinks, no phone calls.” Remember, folks, we’re dealing with a drug, (fentanyl, nonetheless… the ‘weaker’ cousin), that just this month caused Ohio police officer Chris Green his life when he literally brushed it off his shirt. Officer Green patted the man down, who had fentanyl powder on his clothes, and sometime later, “…as officers were standing around and talking, someone told Green he had some powder on his shirt, and he brushed at it with his hand to wipe it off,” according to CBS Pittsburgh. Let Green’s own words describe what happened next: “I started talking weird. I slowly felt my body shutting down. I could hear them talking, but I couldn’t respond. I was in total shock. ‘No way I’m overdosing,’ I thought.” Yet he did overdose, and four Narcan shots later, his life was saved. Dr. Harshbarger must deal with fentanyl (and carfentanil) powder all too often.

The Toll

This is much easier to understand. The average age of someone who dies from an opioid death is 26, after all. Dr. Harshbarger, from the Tribune Review: “There’s no time to decompress anymore. It’s just the same tragedy over and over again.”

Ohio at War

Fox News interviewed Senator Rob Portman recently about Ohio’s fentanyl epidemic, as well as Dr. Harshbarger’s incredible situation. Portland is a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Public Affairs, and also co-authored CARA, the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, which was at the time the country’s largest ever effort toward addiction recovery. Put simply, Senator Portman knows better than most just how horrible this drug epidemic really is. The Fox interview with Sen. Portman begins with an eye-opening fact. The reporter, prior to asking Portman what’s being done about the opioid epidemic, says that more Americans have died “in recent years” from opioid overdoses than terrorist attacks. Wow. Perhaps even more eye-opening is what Portman says about a minute and a half into the video: “More people have died in the last three years of overdose deaths than died in the Vietnam War.” He goes on to explain how drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in America, surpassing even automobile accidents. Even with these alarming comparisons to terror and war, Dr. Harshbarger’s overcrowded coroner’s office hits home harder than anything. Senator Portman on the issue: “There are coroner offices in Ohio where there are actually refrigeration trucks now that are pulled up next to the coroner’s office because they don’t have room… so this is a huge challenge for our country. Over 100 people are dying every day.” Yes, Ohio has it worse than most or all other states, but this truly is a national epidemic. Portman said more have died from overdoses than in Vietnam. Let’s do some sad math and show how America too is at war.

America at War

Over 100 Americans are dying daily from opioid overdoses, but for mathematical purposes, let’s call it an even hundred. American involvement in the Vietnam War lasted roughly six years, or 2,190 days. If the war were to have claimed 100 American lives a day, then a staggering 219,000 would have perished. Approximately 58,200 US troops died in the war. Opioids are four times deadlier than warfare. When someone mentions ‘the drug war,’ it usually means the governmental fight against drug-related crimes. However, in today’s context, this author believes that it’s come to mean a war that’s being fought between all of us and the drugs themselves. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said last year that 1 in 3 American homes are somehow directly affected by the opioid epidemic. If that’s not a war, then what is?

In Conclusion

China makes the fentanyl and the carfentanil and they sell online. North American drug dealers purchase it from them and distribute it throughout the masses, killing thousands along the way, and places like Montgomery County end up having such filled morgues that there are literally dead people in trucks parked outside. The problem, believe it or not, might be the United States Postal Service. It turns out that the USPS does not follow the same regulations that private mail services like Fed Ex have to follow. When dealers buy from China, they use USPS, the same company that allows grandmothers to send birthday money. For the most part, due to the non-odorous powder quality of fentanyl and carfentanil, these packages get delivered with no interference. That’s why Senator Portman, among others, is pushing for the STOP Act to be made law. The Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act “would require shipments from foreign countries through our postal system to provide electronic advance data—such as who and where it is coming from, who it’s going to, where it is going, and what’s in it—before they cross our borders and enter the United States.” It’s amazing this doesn’t happen already. If you or a loved one is experiencing a problem with opioids, or any substance, please seek help immediately. We are here for you.

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