A 53-year-old Frederick man’s death was among the first three in Maryland attributed to a new synthetic opioid that is typically used to tranquilize elephants and other large animals.
Frederick police on April 7 launched a death investigation in the 1100 block of Key Parkway that was promptly forwarded to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for further analysis, said Lt. Clark Pennington, commander of the department’s Criminal Investigation Division.
Results showed the man, whose name was not being released as of Monday, died from an overdose, Pennington said.
The man’s death, along with two others under investigation in Anne Arundel County, were the first deaths directly linked to carfentanil in the state, according to a Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene news release issued Friday.
“We know that carfentanil and other controlled dangerous substances were found in his blood during the autopsy, but it’s still an open investigation at this point,” Pennington said when reached for comment Monday.
Carfentanil is estimated to be roughly 10,000 times deadlier than morphine, the release states. Carfentanil is so powerful that the amount that can be legally manufactured in the United States each year is closely regulated, said Todd C. Edwards, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration based in Baltimore.
“Only 19 grams are made legally in the United States each year, so it’s our belief that the stuff that people are seeing now is coming from out of the country,” Edwards said. “It’s typically used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large animals, so you can imagine how deadly this could be compared to even, say, fentanyl.”
Fentanyl was the last synthetic opioid to make waves across the state as officials began seeing more deaths being traced back to batches of heroin being combined with the stronger synthetic drugs in order to stretch profits, Edwards said.
Some people were found to have died from raw fentanyl overdoses without heroin, but most overdoses were believed to be the result of heroin being mixed with stronger synthetic opioids by dealers eager to add power to their product and increase the amount of the drug they could sell, Edwards said.
Officials are now worried a similar approach may be underway with carfentanil, Edwards said.
“The thought is, if you can mix it right, you can really stretch out your supply of heroin to a larger degree and maximize your profit,” Edwards said. “But if you mix it wrong, then, just like with fentanyl, you’re likely to get a ‘hot batch’ and people will start dying.”
Estimates published with the state health department’s news release indicate carfentanil can be up to 100 times deadlier than fentanyl, which is itself estimated to be 50 times deadlier than baseline heroin.
Several overdose deaths were previously linked to carfentanil in nearby states, including Ohio and West Virginia, as well as parts of the Northeast, Edwards said.
Following up on the state of emergency declared last year in Maryland for opioid-related overdoses, Gov. Larry Hogan issued a further warning about carfentanil, specifically in a statement posted to Facebook on Monday night.
“It is imperative that we raise awareness of just how deadly these drugs are. Our Opioid Operational Command Center, which I announced in tandem with the state of emergency, will continue to work with county and local offices, but we need your help to spread the word,” Hogan’s statement reads in part.
Local police are working with their county, state and federal partners to try to determine where the carfentanil came from and the potential scope of the problem, Pennington said.
“We view this as a public safety as well as a public health issue, so we’re not only working with our county and state health departments but also our federal partners as well,” Pennington said.
Marylanders struggling with substance abuse disorders are urged to visit MdDestinationRecovery.org or call the 24/7 Maryland Crisis Hotline at 800-422-0009 to find location-based treatment.