Synthetic heroin use skyrocketing with deadly results

Miami Fire Chief Maurice Kemp said the use of Narcan, the antidote to an overdose of fentanyl, has more than doubled in Miami the past year.
Miami Fire Chief Maurice Kemp said the use of Narcan, the antidote to an overdose of fentanyl, has more than doubled in Miami the past year. Miami Herald Staff

Fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic that can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin, is killing drug abusers at an alarming rate and placing increased stress on first responders throughout South Florida.

The drug, a prescription painkiller that has flooded South Florida streets through pipelines from Mexico and China the past few years, has continued to cast a pall despite China banning its manufacturing earlier this year after pressure from Washington.

Through August of this year, according to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office, 130 people have died from overdoses on fentanyl. That’s already more than a 20 percent increase over all of last year. And it dwarfs the number of overdoses from fentanyl between 2010 and 2014 when about 20 people a year died from overusing the drug.

“The problem is bad and it’s getting worse,” said Miami Fire Chief Maurice Kemp.

Kemp said that in the first eight months of this year, paramedics have administered Narcan — an opiate antidote used to combat fentanyl overdoses — to 1,023 people. The department used 493 doses all of last year. Costs to the city for Narcan have increased from $43,000 to more than $155,000.

Law enforcement experts believe the wave in opioid abuse can be traced back to the crackdown a few years back on Oxycodone. Often, users believe they’re buying heroin, but are given fentanyl instead. The drug can be used through a patch, snorted, swallowed or injected.

Cutting the pipeline from other countries to South Florida has proved troublesome, as purchasers find new ways to ship the drugs that have even proved dangerous to postal workers who can be exposed if the drugs touch their skin. The Miami Herald chronicled the rise of the synthetic drug in its Pipeline China series last year.

And prosecutions have been difficult as investigators have had a hard time keying in on main suppliers instead of low-level street dealers.

Still, there have been some: In March, a Miramar man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for importing variants of fentanyl from a prisoner in Canada, who was in turn ordering the drugs from China. Authorities said he used the virtual currency known as Bitcoin to pay for the drugs.

And last month, Christopher Sharod Massena, 24, of Palm Beach County, was convicted at trial of a single count of distribution of fentanyl, resulting in death.

To combat the issue and inform the public, a dozen South Florida law enforcement and government leaders gathered Friday at the Miami Police College Auditorium. They presented slide shows and spoke of the drug’s dangers to the public.

Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said officers were being trained to identify users and learn how to deal with them. Pamphlets are being made available in high drug use areas. And sellers are being targeted.

“We’re not in the business of arresting drug addicts,” he said.

Assistant Miami-Dade police director Freddy Ramirez called the increased use of fentanyl a “scourge.” He said that his officers have created a task force called Operation Smackdown and that so far 97 arrests have been made and more than 10.5 kilos of heroin have been confiscated.

He didn’t mention how much fentanyl had been seized.

Homeland Security Deputy Special Agent John Toban said arresting dealers is difficult because the majority of the fentanyl that is distributed in the United States arrives through deals made on the Dark Web or Dark Net, underground websites where IP addresses are hidden.

“It’s a national priority, dismantling those organizations,” he said.

Miami Herald Staff Writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.