181118_FENTANYL01

Syringes filled with the opioid painkiller fentanyl are seen in an inpatient pharmacy.

ELKHORN

Following a traffic crash on Highway 12 in April, a witness told police they saw Michael D. Schmuck slumped over the steering wheel with a syringe in his right hand.

Responding officers gave Schmuck, 36, of Elkhorn, four doses of Narcan to revive him, according to a criminal complaint filed recently in Walworth County Court.

Schmuck said he didn’t remember being in the crash in the town of Geneva where police found a used syringe and burnt spoon. He told police he had cooked up Percocet before driving, the complaint states.

State lab results showed residue from the spoon and Schmuck’s blood both tested positive for fentanyl—a synthetic opioid the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Fentanyl has killed more people in Walworth County so far in 2018 than it had in 2016 or 2017, a trend that is distressing local officials who want to get the word out to users.

In 2016, there were two overdose deaths involving fentanyl in the county. In 2017, there were three.

But by the time 2018 is over, there could end up being at least seven deaths, said Gina Carver, lead investigator for the Walworth County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Four deaths have already been confirmed to have involved fentanyl, but three others are suspected to fall into the same camp based on preliminary testing, Carver said.

With the holiday season looming, a time of year that is notoriously difficult for many users and addicts, there is concern about the number growing.

“We’re worried,” Carver said. “I am really worried.”

During the national opioid epidemic, fentanyl gained prominence as it was being cut into heroin.

Statewide, the crime lab has reported seeing some instances of fentanyl appearing in crushed pills and cocaine, although officials with the Walworth County Drug Unit say they haven’t encountered that locally.

Test results for someone who dies of an overdose might show multiple substances in a person’s system, but it’s not always easy to tell if those are from single or multiple uses.

Katie Behl, chair of the Walworth County Drug and Alcohol Coalition, said at the group’s Nov. 12 meeting in Elkhorn that the rise in fentanyl is “concerning enough that we need to take action.” Behl is also the county’s treatment court coordinator.

Cory Newmann, the coalition’s vice-chair, said some narcotics dealers market overdoses as a “badge of honor” to prove how strong their drugs are. The fentanyl can be so strong that Narcan doesn’t work to revive overdose victims, Newmann said.

For a long time, Newmann said fentanyl was distributed mostly through transdermal patches. In Walworth County, he said terminal patients in nursing homes have had their patches removed and abused by workers or family members.

Given the recent uptick in the drug’s use, the coalition is thinking about distributing fentanyl test strips so people can check for the drug’s presence before use.

Newmann said he does not expect dealers to warn users that their product has been cut with potentially lethal amounts of fentanyl.

“It’s of great concern,” he said. “We want to make sure that people are aware of that.”

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181118_FENTANYL02

Someone prepares heroin, placing a fentanyl test strip into the mixing container to check for contamination, in New York. If the strip registers a ‘pinkish’ to red marker, then the heroin is positive for contaminants.

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