The 5 grams of synthetic opioid state police seized this week in Unity was enough to produce the equivalent of 30,000 to 50,000 stamp bags of heroin, and drugs like it may already be responsible for two overdose deaths in Westmoreland County, investigators said.
County detectives and state police on Wednesday seized a package of carfentanil, typically used as an elephant tranquilizer, shortly after it was delivered to an apartment on Whitney Court Drive.
According to a police report, the occupant of the apartment told troopers the package contained carfentanil, which can be combined with other ingredients, sold and injected like heroin. The occupant ordered the drugs online and paid with Bitcoins, a digital currency.
“Literally, a granule of this stuff gets mixed with a gallon of water and cutting agents … dried out then cooked,” said Trooper Steve Limani, a spokesman at the state police Greensburg barracks. “This is the stuff that kills everyone.”
Because the drug is so potent, state police used hazmat suits to handle and seize the suspected carfentanil, along with 136 marijuana plants, packaging material and an iPad.
Charges are pending.
Carfentanil can enter a person’s system through contact with the skin or mucus membranes, so police and laboratory workers should wear gloves at the very least and avoid disturbing any powder when dealing with it, said Dr. Michael Lynch, medical director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center. Even absorbing a tiny dose can cause sedation and reduced breathing within a few minutes, he said.
“We talk in terms of micrograms with fentanyl; this we think of in fractions of micrograms,” Lynch said.
Until recently, the drug was often made in China and exported, either directly via the online black market or through Mexico. But China banned carfentanil’s manufacture and export as of March 1. The drug could still be made and shipped illegally, Lynch said.
Five grams, the amount police said was seized, is equivalent to about a teaspoon of salt. Lynch said carfentanil is considered 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times as powerful as morphine. Drug dealers can use it to supplement diluted heroin or as a substitute for the drug completely.
“An amount equal to one or two grains of salt is enough to kill,” said Westmoreland County Chief Deputy Coroner John Swartz.
He said carfentanil was suspected in two fatal overdoses in March, though toxicology tests are still pending. Last year, there were two fatal carfentanil overdoses in Beaver County and another in Butler County. A federal grand jury in Pittsburgh indicted Reginald Davis of New Brighton on charges of distributing carfentanil in March.
The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office has not reported any carfentanil-related deaths, though the substance has turned up in tests of some stamp bags seized from crime scenes, officials said.
Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehab, said he’d seen an uptick in patients who thought their drugs had been spiked or replaced with fentanyl or carfentanil, and he blamed the increase in fatal overdoses on the growth of such synthetic opioids.
“People are scared. I’ve talked to a couple of people today who say they’re more determined than ever to stay in recovery because so many people have died,” Capretto said. “All signs indicate the future is going to bring more, not less, of these things because it’s all about making money.”
State police said the package seized in Unity had a shipping address of Naples, Fla., and would be investigated further. Limani said lab tests will confirm within a few days whether it was carfentanil.