In recent months, fentanyl has become a frequently discussed issue amongst politicians and, due to its highly addictive qualities, Pitt County has been seeing a rise in cases of illegal fentanyl possession.
Sharon Ermolowich, teaching instructor with East Carolina University’s chemistry department, said she specializes in analytical and pharmaceutical chemistry and has experience working with opiates and other prescription drugs.
“Fentanyl is what is known as a synthetic opiate, so it’s not something that derives from nature, the synthetic stuff is a lot stronger than some of the other opiates that you hear about often for pain management,” Ermolowich said.
Fentanyl can be obtained both legally from a prescription and illegally via drug dealers, Ermolowich said, and because of fentanyls strength many drug dealers have begun to use it for its affordability and efficiency.
Ermolowich said fentanyl is more lethal than other synthetic opiates because of its potency, but its potency and strength is also what makes it more appealing to users and dealers.
“The drugs that you find on the streets are usually mixed in with other things (drugs), you don’t typically find fentanyl by itself,” Ermolowich said.
Fentanyl was originally developed as a pain reliever for cancer patients, Ermolowich said, and if somebody who is not in chronic pain like a cancer patient takes fentanyl, the effects can be overwhelming to their body.
Ermolowich said the drug metabolizes at different speeds for different individuals who take it, so two people can take the same dose of fentanyl but depending on their bodies metabolic rate one person can overdose while the other is OK.
“Over 150 people die everyday from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl,” Ermolowich said.
Detective Justin White with the Greenville Regional Drug Task Force said he has noticed an increase in fentanyl in Greenville and the drug is normally disguised to look like another drug.
White said this increase in fentanyl use is not isolated to Greenville, but is a nationally growingl trend.
“We’ve (the drug task force) primarily seen fentanyl in pills labeled as Perc-30s or Percocets, basically they’re made to look like fake Percocets with the number 30 stamped on it,” White said. “Occasionally, but it still happens, we see fentanyl in xanax pills.”
The pills appear to be small, round and the color can vary from green to blue, White said, and the fentanyl can either be on its own or combined with another substance like heroin.
The main concern with the rise of fentanyl, White said, is its ability to cause overdoses even in small amounts.
“Due to fentanyl being what it is and being as powerful as what it is, overdoses are very common, especially someone who is doing heroin and they don't know the fentanyl is laced in with it,” White said.
The internet and access to the dark web is a contributor to the rise of fentanyl in Greenville, White said, and is making the drug more accessible and common.
White said in order to remain safe from the dangers of fentanyl, everyone should avoid taking drugs that are not directly prescribed to them.
“Be smart about it (drug use), don’t take anything that’s not prescribed to you, don’t trust anyone if they're like ‘oh try this out,’ especially like if you’re at like a big group at like a party or something,” White said.
The best way to avoid fentanyl, White said, is to never accept drugs, especially if there is not 100% certainty the drug is not laced.
Chief Tim Greene of the Winterville Police Department has been an officer for about 15 years and he said he has noticed an uptick in fentanyl use in Pitt County.
“We (The Winterville Police Department) have been getting some complaints as of late that fentanyl is being mixed into the cocaine around here (Pitt County),” Greene said.
Recently, Greene said he arrested a young man for possession of fentanyl, and the man explained fentanyl can look very similar to cocaine, because fentanyl is an opiate and can constipate users so it is frequently combined with laxatives giving it a white, powdery appearance.
Greene said the Pitt County Coalition on Substance Use (PCCSU) provided a vending machine with free narcan in it to be used in life threatening instances, such as an overdose, and this vending machine can be found at the Pitt County Detention Center.
“The PCCSU, the Pitt County Coalition on Substance Use, those guys over there actually have an opioid action team,” Greene said. “These guys and gals are part of the needle exchange program that advocates users bring their own needles, we’ll (PCCSU) give you new needles.”
As a police officer, Greene said he understands the need to help users avoid potential overdoses by all means necessary with programs like the needle exchange program and narcan availability, but he also fears that these programs may encourage addiction.
Greene said he doesn’t know the answer on how to decrease drug use, but there are many sources to contact like counseling and rehab.
“Its (drug use in Pitt County) trending now mostly towards all heroin, all opiates, that’s the big thing, I barely ever see crack-cocaine anymore, and meth is just starting to hit,” Greene said.