Fentanyl | St. Louis Public Radio

Fentanyl

August 29, 2019 Ben Westhoff
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio

Fentanyl has become an international scourge. It’s been blamed for a spike in drug overdose deaths in Missouri as well as around the world. It’s both contaminated many recreational drugs and become a substitute for heroin in many American cities. And yet the Chinese factory responsible for manufacturing most of its precursors has received funding and lucrative tax breaks from the Chinese government.

Through years of research, St. Louis journalist Ben Westhoff has become one of the foremost experts into the international fentanyl trade. On Thursday, he joined St. Louis on the Air to talk about his new book, “Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic.” Westhoff discussed how his investigation followed the drug from its manufacture in China to the streets of St. Louis – and the terrible impact that synthetic, laboratory-made drugs are having on communities around the world.

Donald Hutson is one of hundreds of people who have overdosed while in state prisons since May 2017, according to Missouri Department of Corrections records.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Destini Hutson spent much of her childhood picturing what life would be like when her dad came home.

Over time, her plans turned to the practical: teach him how to use an iPhone, help him find a job, go to Chick-fil-A together.

“‘It’s a lot that you’re going to have to learn,’” Hutson told her dad, Donald, who went to prison in 1997 when she was still a baby.

Those plans came to a halt last September, when Donald Hutson died of a drug overdose at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific. He’s one of more than 430 inmates who have overdosed in state prisons since May 2017, according to internal data from the Missouri Department of Corrections. While there are many ways drugs are smuggled into prisons, DOC employees say internal corruption is a key part of the problem.

A kit containing the opioid overdose antidote naloxone.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

The number of drug-related deaths increased by 16% last year, as fatal overdoses declined by an estimated 5.1% nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Missouri is one of 17 states that saw a rise in drug-related deaths last year. In 34 states, the number of deaths declined. Only Delaware had a higher increase over the previous year, at 16.7%.

Detective Melody Quinn of the St. Louis County Police Department leads a class outlining the myths and dangers of the sythetic opioid fentanyl, which was involved in the majority of the county's overdose deaths last year.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio

Officials from the St. Louis County Police Department want the public and the region’s law enforcement to know touching the synthetic opioid fentanyl won’t get them high or overdose.

Such myths could put overdose victims at risk, since emergency responders may be hesitant to touch or treat them.

In recent months, several police reports and media outlets have recounted stories of law enforcement officers getting high or sick after responding to overdose victims and getting fentanyl powder on their hands.

An activist campaign calls on city officials to shut down St. Louis' medium-security jail, commonly known as the Workhouse.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The inmate who died at St. Louis' Medium Security Institution (MSI) in August died of an accidental fentanyl overdose, the autopsy report shows.

Louis L. Payton, 48, was the latest inmate to die at the facility known as the Workhouse this year. He was the fifth inmate to die in custody at a city jail this year, according to records St. Louis Public Radio received in August from the city.

Michelle Pattengill, a technician at L&S Pharmacy in Charleston, Mo., holds a bottle of oxycodone, a prescription opioid.
Bram Sable-Smith| Side Effects Public Media

The number of opioid-overdose deaths in St. Louis and surrounding counties continued to rise in 2017, although the increase wasn’t as steep as in previous years.

There were 760 opioid-related fatalities last year in St. Louis, St. Louis County and eight surrounding counties, a 7 percent increase from 2016, according to the St. Louis-based National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. The year before, the number of deaths jumped nearly 40 percent.

“We have seen a major increase in access to treatment, in access to naloxone, in access to harm-reduction strategies, and that might having an impact in slowing down the increase,” said Brandon Costerison, director of the addiction prevention and education initiative MO-HOPE.

A kit containing the opioid overdose antidote naloxone.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

Preliminary data from the community health agency NCADA show the number of opioid-related deaths in the St. Louis area rose again last year, as they have since 2007.

Nearly 760 people died due to opioids in 2017, a 5 percent increase from 2016. That was a relative improvement from the dramatic spike between 2015 and 2016, when deaths jumped from 517 to 712, or a 38 percent increase. The total includes deaths from things like driving under the influence of opioids as well as overdose deaths.