Crime & Courts

Lethal opioid ‘China white’ cases on the rise in SC

Getty Images/iStockphoto

South Carolina had a larger number of cases than its neighboring states involving an increasingly popular synthetic drug that in its purest form can kill someone by just touching it.

There were 90 cases involving seized fentanyl in South Carolina in 2015, according to a recently released report by a congressional commission that monitors and investigates the national security implications of the trade and economic relationship between China and United States.

The report singled out China as the United States’ primary source of fentanyl, which was referred to as a “cheap, synthetically produced opioid” – a painkiller that is about 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Richland County narcotics investigator Zach Brunson said heroin dealers are switching to fentanyl because users want a stronger high.

“They call it ‘China white,’” Brunson said.

Though Georgia had a case that involved more than 30 pounds of fentanyl, overall, it saw 80 cases in 2015; 10 fewer than in South Carolina. And North Carolina had 10 seizures of the drug that same year, according to the report.

Those numbers are alarming to state lawmakers Reps. Russell Fry, R-Horry, and Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, who have taken an interest in addressing the state’s opioid epidemic through legislation.

Fry’s legislative district involves the county hit hardest by the opioid epidemic – Horry. In December, Myrtle Beach Police responded to nine overdoses in one week alone, according to local reports.

“It’s a huge concern for this state, and countrywide,” Fry said. “It’s an issue that affects all segments of society, all races, all classes, and it’s important to address it head on.”

But it’s an issue both federal and local law enforcement is struggling to grapple with. In January, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts introduced a resolution to name the use of illicit fentanyl and the resulting overdose deaths a public health crisis. It is legally available through a non-refillable prescription.

Meanwhile, every time federal law enforcement officials identify and seize the drugs and move to ban fentanyl products, Chinese manufacturers will tweak the formula by as little as one molecule and distribute that version instead, the report found.

When the United States banned non-prescription fentanyl in 2015, manufacturers began selling furanyl fentanyl. When that version was banned, carfentanil hit the streets. Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and has been found in Kentucky, Ohio and Florida, three of the states that have been hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. Fentanyl is often mixed with heroin. Brunson said most of the overdoses reported in Richland County are attributed to the illicit drug.

Fentanyl can be so dangerous that even dealers warn users that what they’re selling is fentanyl or China white and say they must be careful with it. Only a couple of grains can be deadly, Brunson said.

The warning from dealers is a must, because they don’t want to earn a reputation for selling stuff that will kill people. But when users learn of others that they have overdosed, they’ll go searching for that dealer.

“It’s almost like a selling point, because it’s so strong they want to try it,” Brunson said. “It’s kind of mind blowing that people want to go buy stuff that’s more deadly that what than already taking.”

Despite the drug’s popularity, it’s difficult to track how many people in South Carolina have overdosed or died specifically because of fentanyl. The Department of Health and Environmental Control counts fentanyl-related deaths as part of the broader opioid-related deaths field. That number totaled 573 in 2015, up from 504 in 2014.

In Richland County, there were 59 opioid-related deaths in 2016, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. Of that number, 21 were attributed to fentanyl and heroin, though there are still a few cases still pending, Watts said.

The congressional report suggests the United States work to have the Chinese government exert more control. So far, China has placed little emphasis on controlling the production and export of fentanyl, because it’s not widely used in China.

In some cases, American distributors can order the drug online.

Manufacturers in China then mail fentanyl through a chain of forwarding systems, mislabel shipments or label it as detergent to avoid detection. Some are so sure they can avoid detection they guarantee a second shipment if the first is seized.

Though much of fentanyl is shipped to the U.S. directly, Mexico is another major destination for manufacturers.

And because fentanyl is often found in powder form, it’s difficult for law enforcement to tell the difference between it and heroin, Brunson said. Narcotics agents in Richland County don’t even test it on the field. They send seized drugs to a laboratory.

“It’s a concern for us, public safety officials, because we come in contact with it more often now,” Brunson said. “If you touch it can be absorbed through your skin, and it can become deadly.”

Cynthia Roldán: 803-295-0435, @CynthiaRoldan

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic painkiller that is about 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is legally available through a non-refillable prescription. It’s so strong that touching or inhaling just two milligrams (or about two grains of salt) can be lethal.

SOURCE: U.S.-China Econmic and Security Review Commission

Fentanyl cases reported regionally in 2015

90 in South Carolina

80 in Georgia

10 in North Carolina

SOURCE: U.S.-China Econmic and Security Review Commission

South Carolina opioid-related deaths

573 in 2015

504 in 2014

SOURCE: The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control

Where to go for help locally

The Lexington/Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council, commonly known as LRADAC. The non-profit agency offers assistance to anyone struggling with substance misuse, including opiates.

“Through individualized treatment plans, we know that recovery is possible,” said Allison Atkins Brumfield, spokeswoman for the agency. “LRADAC’s staff includes counselors, case managers, peer support specialists, and medical professionals who can help individuals and families cope with substance misuse and find a new path to recovery.”