The human toll of the fentanyl epidemic

PHOENIX (KSAZ) -- A Phoenix firefighter, a Verrado High School baseball player, singer Demi Lovato, and late singer Prince all have one thing in common: they all overdosed on fentanyl.

A lot of the fentanyl and fentanyl-laced opiates are produced by a single Mexican drug cartel, which is driving the increasing number of overdose deaths here in the Valley and across the country.

"Fentanyl has ruined my life," said recovering fentanyl addict Parker McKinsey. "It's taken everything that I love."

McKinsey is now in his second stint at rehab, after nearly two years of using fentanyl daily.

"It was like a combination of meth and heroin, because I felt like I was on top of the world, but I also got that opiate body high," McKinsey said. "Super relaxed, but I felt like I could do absolutely anything."

McKinsey was popping six to seven pills a day, then move on to fentanyl-laced heroin. He knew he was going to die if he didn't go seek help, and treatment saved him.

However, McKinsey's younger brother, 17-year-old Bryan McKinsey, died from an overdose.

"My brother was highly scouted highly," McKinsey recounted. "He was looking at scholarships from St. Louis University, Connecticut, schools in California. After high school, he was going to enter the draft."

Bryan was the the star pitcher at Verrado High School. The team was days away from playing in the state finals when Bryan was found dead in his bedroom. McKinsey said that was the first and last time his brother used drugs.

McKinsey does not know why Bryan did it.

"That shouldn't have happened. That wasn't his path," said McKinsey. "I was a huge part in raising him, so I felt like I did a really terrible job of raising him, the way he went out."

Fentanyl kills fast, and with very little effort. Fentanyl powder, equivalent to the amount of two grains of sand, can cause an overdose. While fentanyl kills quick, it leaves loved ones in excruciating pain.

"It's been three months, a little over three months, and it doesn't get better," said Tom Higgins. His son, 32-year-old Scott, died of an accidental fentanyl overdose. "Everyday, it's this."

Higgins said Scott and a couple of his high school buddies were going to a house party, but they decided to score some cocaine first.

"They did a small sample in the car before they got to the party, and when they got there, the other two guys, much bigger than my son, basically fell out of the car," Higgins said. "My son never made it out of the car. Friends did CPR until the police got there."

Scott never gained consciousness, and the other two spent a few days in ICU, but survived. Toxicology shows Scott had no trace of cocaine in his system, and died from an accidental fentanyl overdose. The survivors told Higgins they had no idea, and thought they were doing coke.

It's more common for people to overdose unwittingly from fentanyl-laced pills. The pills run from $8-$20 on the street, per pill.

"I'd say 9 out of 10 times, they don't even know," said McKinsey. "They think they're just doing percs or oxys."

Nowadays, McKinsey says popping pills is as normal for high school kids and adults, as smoking weed was in past generations.

"Whether it's the pills or heroin, I think its safe to assume that there's a possibility that there's fentanyl in it," said Doug Coleman with the Drug Enforcement Agency. 

Fentanyl has just now surpassed heroin as the leading cause of opioid deaths. It's so bad, that the Centers for Disease Control is calling it the "third wave" of the opioid epidemic, with painkillers and heroin being the first two. The numbers seized are just a tiny fraction of what's on the streets.

"The Mexican cartel's taking a large foothold in fentanyl, and mixing it in with other products they're selling," said Coleman.

DEA says one group has the monopoly on production and distribution of fentanyl into Arizona communities. 

"Were the main stopping point for the majority of Sinaloa cartel drugs that come across," said Coleman. "They come to Phoenix or Tucson first, then a piece of them is shipped to meet local market, and the rest is shipped off to the rest of the United States."

Fentanyl deaths started spiking in 2016, and sadly, it's on track to keep spiking right now.

"The drug is powerful," said McKinsey. "It's extremely powerful. They always say you chase your first high. Well, with fentanyl, it's like you're getting high for the first time, every time."

"We tend to live in denial," said Higgins. "Not my kid. Not my spouse, and we cant do that. I think education is going to be the biggest thing."

For Phoenix firefighters, treating opioid overdose patients is routine, but treating fentanyl overdose patients is a rising trend.

"This is a newer situation that were dealing with," said Jake Van Hook with the Phoenix Fire Department. "It is challenging. It has changed the way we respond to overdose incidents."

Typically, they immediately give a patient a two milligram shot of Narcan, then the patient starts becoming conscious, and starts breathing on their own.

With fentanyl overdoses, however, it's a different story.

"Four and six milligrams, even eight to 10 milligrams of Narcan is not enough to bring these people back to a coherent state," said Van Hook. "We may have to support their total life functions on the way to the hospital, and that's something different than what we've seen in the past with other opioid overdoses."

Fentanyl powder is extremely potent, and those who handle it must wear HAZMAT-type suits, or risk overdosing. DEA officials in Arizona recently purchased a fume hood, because of the vast amount of fentanyl they're seizing.

"We've seized enough powder fentanyl this year to kill 50 million Americans," said Coleman.

So far this year, more than 200 pounds of powder and 100,000 fentanyl tablets have been seized by the DEA in Arizona, and that's just a fraction of what's out there on the streets. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, nearly 2,500 people died after suspected opiate overdoses in the last 17 months. For the first time ever, fentanyl is the number one cause of opiate overdose deaths.

The DEA says a Phoenix-area drug dealer was trying to sell blue pills marked with "30" as oxy pills, but some customers were afraid of the pills because they have "poison in them". Local dealers will be charged for the overdose deaths. 46-year-old Fany Madrigal Lopez admitted one of her customers died the night he bought drugs from her. Lopez was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.

"Because this stuff is manufactured, it's not like they're in a laboratory and measuring how much is in it, they just take the fentanyl and stir it with a spoon, so you may take one hit with 1 milligram and fentanyl, When the next you take a hit with 7 milligrams of fentanyl in it," said Coleman.

Illicit fentanyl is killing more people than any other illicit drug. It's here to stay and potentially kill more people, and ruin lives and families.

"This is more potent," said Van Hook. "It's more deadly. It has more hazardous effects long-term."

Firefighters are ready and expecting to respond to an ever-increasing number of fentanyl overdoses, as even more fentanyl will be smuggled into and sold in Arizona.

"The cartels are going to continue to meet that demand," said Coleman.

Sadly, both first responders and law enforcement anticipate fentanyl will continue its reign as the most deadly opiate in the state, and likely the nation, indiscriminately killing more and more people, every day.

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