There’s a mass killer on the loose in the United States that has even been known to be busy in Texas County, Mo.

No, it’s not another “active shooter” situation. It’s not even a person or group of people, but is nonetheless a major, large-scale threat, even though it doesn’t get as much attention in the mainstream media as it probably should.

It’s fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that was first developed in Belgium and was introduced by the pharmaceutical industry in the 1960s for pain management treatment. It’s known to be considerably stronger than morphine (like 50 to 100 times), and because of its powerful properties, it has become a popular “recreational” drug that is often added to heroin to increase its potency, or simply disguise it as super-strong heroin.

For the record, opioid is a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some opioids are made directly from the plant, while others – like fentanyl – are made in laboratories using the same chemical structure.

Fentanyl can cause respiratory problems or death when taken in high doses or when combined with other substances, especially alcohol or other illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Many heroin addicts don’t actually know they’re dealing with fentanyl – which frequently results in fatal overdoses. But even when people know they’re using fentanyl, the risk of overdose is still high due to the nature of the drug. Basically, most addicts aren’t scientists who can measure the potency of a given batch of fentanyl-laced heroin or the strength of a modest-looking fentanyl capsule, so it’s hard to know what exactly constitutes a “safe” dose.

Most clandestinely (or illegally) produced fentanyl is manufactured in Mexico before finding its way to American destinations like Texas County. In its prescription form, it’s known as Actiq, Duragesic and Sublimaze. While you might not hear its street names around here very often, fentanyl goes by several, including Apace, China Girl, China Town, China White, Dance Fever, Goodfellas, Great Bear, He-Man, Poison and Tango & Cash.

When prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl can be given as a shot, a patch applied to the skin or as lozenges (like cough drops). Illegal fentanyl is typically used as a powder, dropped onto blotter paper, put in eye-droppers and nasal sprays, or made into pills resembling other prescription opioids. When it’s mixed with heroin or another drug, the resulting “polysubstance” can be stronger and more unpredictable than one drug alone, and subsequently prove to be deadly.

Illicit fentanyl exists in several forms.

What has really brought fentanyl to my attention lately had been the part of my job that involves visiting the local sheriff’s department and police station once a week to peruse reports generated by officers with regard to their interaction with the public. While shuffling through the paperwork, it’s not at all uncommon nowadays to come across reports about overdose deaths attributed to fentanyl.

In fact, I saw three such reports last week. Yep, in a short span of time, officers documented the deaths of three people in Texas County due to fentanyl.

And those were just the documented cases. There were most likely others that weren’t investigated by local law enforcement personnel.

While it’s still relatively new to the illicit drug scene, the reality is that fentanyl is a very real (and very active) killer. It’s not just a word you hear, it’s a deadly mass murderer that doesn’t care about race, gender or any other human trait.

It’s a completely equal opportunity assassin that never plays favorites, and it’s always going to bring its A-game.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. died from a drug overdose during a 12-month period ending in April 2021. During the same period, more than 75,000 died from an opioid-related overdose, with fentanyl being a leading contributor to that statistic. And again, you can rest assured that fentanyl was responsible for lots more deaths that weren’t included in that “official” count.

Meanwhile, states across the U.S. report rampant increases in law enforcement “encounters” with fentanyl over the past five years, so it’s taking valuable time away from officers and hindering them from doing their jobs the way most taxpayers who sustain their salaries would prefer. Dealing with fentanyl is now so prevalent, officers with federal, state, county and municipal agencies are equipped with nalaxone (commonly known by its brand name, Narcan), a narcotic used to treat opioid overdose victims in emergency situations.

And this stuff is so powerful, more than one officer has died after providing mouth-to-mouth treatment to a fentanyl overdose victim.

By definition, the rise of fentanyl is a crisis, and it affects everyone in some way, shape or form. And based on all the evidence, it’s the most dangerous illicit drug this nation has ever known.

What can be done?

As long as the U.S. southern border isn’t secure and as long as it’s possible for fentanyl to come into the country in mass quantities with relative ease, the only thing that can be done is what’s already being done: Try to contain it and document its handiwork.

And there will undoubtedly be plenty of that.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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