Dangerous “designer” versions of a popular synthetic drug that have barely surfaced in areas of the country more deeply struck by the opioid epidemic are making their way into Lexington County, its coroner said Wednesday.
And it’s killing users.
Chinese-imported Fentanyl – which in its purest form can kill someone by just touching it – has been found in toxicology reports of users who died after injecting the synthetic drug, said Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher.
The drug is killing users so quickly that it does not show up in preliminary autopsy reports because the body hasn’t even had a chance to metabolize the drug, she said.
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“Some of the designer drugs that we’re experiencing here in Lexington County are just some where one grain of sand can kill you,” Fisher said. “It, literally, will drop them immediately.”
On Monday, Fisher’s office published a report that revealed 42 of the 44 accidental overdoses in 2016 could be attributed to opiates or opioids. The deaths mirror trends in neighboring Richland County, where 59 people were killed by opioid-related substances in 2016.
It’s difficult to make a numbers comparison over several years, because both the state and county agencies tracked opioid-related deaths differently then. Both Richland County Coroner Gary Watts and Fisher said they’ve started tracking specific drugs as part of their autopsy reports in hopes that their efforts will show trends.
Still, Watts said Wednesday opioid-related deaths continue to rise as the popularity of fentanyl-laced heroin increases. He attributed the higher deaths to several issues.
“More people seem to be looking for illicit street drugs to replace prescription medication they’ve been taking,” Watts said. “But I think one of the issues is the potency of drugs that are out there.”
Fentanyl has become popular in recent years, and a congressional report revealed earlier this year that China is the largest importer of the lethal drug to the United States. The report also revealed that South Carolina had a larger number of cases of seized fentanyl in 2015 than its neighboring states.
The drug is difficult to track and ban by the federal government because Chinese manufacturers continually tweak its formula by as little as one molecule to prevent it from making the list of banned substances. Those tweaks often lead to stronger versions of the drug that are showing up in Lexington County and are less responsive to overdose reversal drugs like Narcan, Fisher said.
“This stuff is just so potent,” Fisher said. “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Meanwhile, as local officials grapple with how to address the epidemic, a legislative budget-writing panel with members from both chambers is debating whether $1.5 million should be assigned to medication-assisted recovery programs as part of the state’s roughly $8 billion budget.
The S.C. House of Representatives – whose speaker instructed a special study committee to look into how to address the growing opioid epidemic – included the $1.5 million in that chamber’s version of the state budget. The state Senate did not.
Rep. Eric Bedingfield, who leads the House’s special committee, said the allocation was not much, but it highlights that the chamber is serious about the issue. Other states that have been devastated by the epidemic have taken similar approaches by addressing the treatment side of the issue, said Bedingfield, a Republican from Greenville.
And as South Carolina moves to better track how often its doctors are prescribing powerful narcotics to their patients and potentially limit the amount, the likelihood of patients turning to street drugs is expected to increase, as it did in states like Florida.
But Florida didn’t act fast enough, resulting in overdose deaths by the thousands. Earlier this month, the Sunshine State’s Gov. Rick Scott declared a public health emergency over the epidemic.
“They allowed the street-level epidemic to grow,” said Bedingfield, who has a personal connection to the epidemic, after losing his 26-year-old son in 2016 to an overdose of fentanyl.
“We don’t want to do that,” he said. “That’s the opposite of the approach we want to take.”
Opioid-related deaths by the numbers:
59 in Richland County in 2016
42 in Lexington County in 2016
573 in South Carolina in 2015*
504 in South Carolina in 2014
*Most recent numbers available
SOURCES: The Lexington and Richland county coroner’s offices and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control