Fentanyl in a hospital. Photo: Joe Amon/ Denver Post via Getty Images
In November, Trump alerted Chinese leaders over the production of fentanyl. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, traveled to New York’s JFK airport, to satisfy customs agents.
” With synthetic drugs flooding our streets, medications are now more powerful, more addictive and even more dangerous than ever ,” Sessions said.” Fentanyl is the number one killer drug in America. And as deadly as it is, you can go online and order it through the mail .”
Over four days last month, DEA confiscated 40 kg of fentanyl from Dominican traffickers, all of it destined for the Philadelphia market, in Trainor’s terms” an insane sum if you calculate each kilo yields 330,000 doses “. Local press reported that a single kilo was enough to kill half the residents in the district.
The economics of fentanyl trafficking are straightforward. The chemicals needed to produce a kilo cost no more than $5,000 and there is no need to wait for the poppy harvest. At $55,000 – $60,000 per kilo delivered, fentanyl is the about the same price as heroin but yields far more once it is cut and packaged for the street.
” You’re paying the same for something that’s roughly 100 times more powerful, so why would you buy heroin ?’ Trainor said.” The demand is for the most powerful thing they can get. Heroin will never be able to compete with fentanyl. It merely can’t .”
Customers, however, are dying. Danny, a long-term Kensington drug user, said high OD rates were initially caused by traders not knowing how to handle fentanyl. According to police one brand, AK-4 7, caused nine deaths in 36 hours and was part of a batch that left 35 people dead.
” When fentanyl came on people didn’t know about it ,” Danny said.” They didn’t know what they were messing with. They OD-ing all over. Once the merchants insured people falling like flies, they were going,’ Wow, we’re doing something wrong .’ Now they getting the cut right.
” Nowadays, if anyone’s dying its largely visitors who just got out of incarcerate or rehab. They think they can do three containers. They can’t … they’re done .”
Street dealers compete for customers, selling high-purity drugs.
” We’ve seen purity of heroin leap from 63 to 93%, which is insane ,” said Trainor.” There’s no greater endorsement for a trafficker than when his product kills somebody. That’s not mythology. We see it all the time. We’ve had wiretaps of drug traffickers bragging how many people their narcotics killed .”
Another longtime Kensington resident and junkie, also named Danny, countered:” They blame the merchants but it ain’t them. The people are doing to themselves. It’s people coming down here from outta district believing they can do whatever they want .”
Authorities only started to take notice, he said, when people starting coming to Kensington and dying: people from other neighborhoods, people with money, white, maybe politically connected.” When one of them children from the other hoods OD, suddenly they make a big deal ,” he said.” When it was just Kensington people they didn’t give a shit …”
Kensington is a harsh place. For many girls there, run entails sex run. For men it’s pimping or, for the cost of got a couple of$ 5 bags, acting as a guide to clients from elsewhere. Some sell Suboxone pills from legitimate prescriptions, or clean needles for a dollar each.
‘There’s no one person controlling it’
Besides fentanyl’s frightening strength, two related factors are causing problems for the authorities: a lack of a dominant trafficker and the ease with which variants of the narcotic can be produced.
In the past, drugs coming into any area would probably be controlled by a single, relatively predictable trafficker or trafficking household. That’s not the case with fentanyl. It’s coming from China, ordered over the dark web, or coming up from Mexico.
” There’s no one person controlling it coming in, and there’s more than we know what to do with ,” Trainor said.
Because it is synthetic, fentanyl is relatively simple to modify. Each subtle change in formulation maintains DEA analysts playing catch-up.
At the top end is carfentanil, used as a painkiller for elephants and other large mammals and estimated based 10,000 times stronger than morphine. It’s still rare on the street but it has shown up in four ODs at the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office. A carfentanil overdose can take several doses of Narcan to counteract. Police and medics are warned that even touching carfentanil powder can cause intoxication.
” It used to be just fentanyl but now we’ve noticed eight different analogs in this area and around 40 nationally ,” Trainor said.” Our chemists estimate there could be 200 additional variants .”
Fentanyl is marketed in stamped bags: White House, Dynamite, Colt 45.” Right now Colt 45 is the strongest thing ,” said one Kensington resident struggling with active craving.” It’s straight-up fentanyl. You can OD on half a suitcase .”
Whatever romanticism was ever associated with opium, or later morphine and heroin, it is lacking with fentanyl. It is painful to use because it burns the vein. Some taken the decision to put the solution for the purposes of the skin, despite an elevated risk of absesses, to reduce the risk of overdose and prolong the high.
Compared with heroin, junkies say, a fentanyl rushing is intense and immediate. Overdoses come along almost instantaneously, the comedown is abrupt and withdrawal long and uncomfortable. Since tolerance builds up speedily, dependency escalates rapidly. The drug is so strong that a user who has overdosed can slip back under after the short-acting Narcan wears off.
Laura, 28, another long-term junkie who has made a home on Emerald Street, shoots six pouches every few hours.
” With fentanyl you get a strong rush but it dies away and you get sick ,” she said.” The withdrawal is much different. You can kick heroin in five or six days but with fentanyl it takes 45 to 60 days. It’s longer, it’s the chemicals in it, and it’s just worse .”
Some junkies say fentanyl had persuaded them to get into a programme.” I didn’t want to die ,” said Michael, who recently entered a methadone programme. This could ultimately prove the silver lining to fentanyl’s devastating marching – it’s ultimately only too strong and too dangerous to use.
” This is a very dangerous period for someone struggling with substance employ disorder with all of the fatal overdoses that are occurring in Philadelphia ,” said Trainor.” Law enforcement is increasingly working with public health and treatment agencies to address this crisis and to save lives, and that’s a win .”