Carfentanil, a powerful drug normally used to tranquilize elephants, is being blamed for at least eight overdose deaths in Hamilton County in Ohio.
Hamilton County coroner Lakshmi Kode Sammarco said on Tuesday, Sept. 6, that while they are still waiting for the results of urine and blood tests from five other overdose deaths, she is confident that these fatalities will also be linked to carfentanil, the most potent opioid used commercially.
The synthetic opioid is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. It is also 100 times stronger than fentanyl, the prescription drug responsible for the death of popstar Prince earlier this year. Fentanyl in itself is already a potent drug being 50 times more deadly than heroin.
The drug, which can significantly slow breathing, is used to sedate large animals but it is not greenlighted for use by humans. As little as 2 milligrams of this drug would be enough to knock out an elephant weighing almost 2,000 pounds.
Sammarco said that the bombardment of the drug on Greater Cincinnati area possibly means that the region may be targeted as a testing ground where dealers try out carfentanil as a cheaper and more easily procured alternative for heroin.
The coroner came up with this theory by considering that businesses tend to test-market a new product in one location and watch for effects before drawing conclusions.
"The intense-focused spike brought up a lot of fears for both of us, that our community was being used as a test tube community," Summarco said. "The ramifications of that is, what are they learning from it? Are they looking to see how many they're going to kill or how fast our first responders can respond?"
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said that users may not even be aware that they are taking the elephant sedative. Illegal drug traffickers have increasingly substituted fentanyl for heroin and other opioids, and carfentanil appears to have hit the streets as well. It is now being sold mixed with heroin or pressed into prescription pill-looking drugs.
Ohio is among the top places hardest hit by the illicit drug epidemic. Figures from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the state had the second highest number of opioid-related deaths in the country in 2014. It also had the fifth highest rate of overdose.
From 2013 to 2014, the state's fentanyl submission to DEA labs by law enforcers grew by more than 1,000 percent and deaths linked to fentanyl use rose by 526 percent.