“It Only Takes Once:” Fentanyl’s deadly toll in WA, US, shows no signs of slowing down

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Most drug users today know that smoking or injecting narcotics has a good chance of containing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine.

“It’s in meth right now, it’s in heroin,” said a 51-year-old Snohomish County woman, who remains anonymous because of her ties to local law enforcement. “It’s straight in everything. It’s going round.”

An addict for more than half her life, she has watched the body count mount from the deadly invasion of fentanyl.

“At least 15 that I know,” she said. “A girl, actually, she and her mother died within a week.”

The rapid rise in fatal fentanyl overdose deaths in Washington state does not appear to be slowing.

In King County alone, 396 people died after using the opioid in 2021. This compares to 170 in 2020. Back in 2015, the county had records only three fentanyl-related deaths.

Nationwide, more than 2,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2021, according to the Washington Department of Health and Human Services, the most on record, and an increase of about 66% compared to 2019.

One of those recent deaths was 20-year-old Jayden Barker.

His aunt Kendra Kruse placed photos of her nephew surrounded by candles and flowers on a mantel in her living room.

“He did sports, loved football, played football,” said Kruse. “A grader. Had scholarships set up.”

Kruse says Jayden began experimenting with painkillers a few years after graduating from Everett’s Cascade High School. About six months later, he stumbled upon a bad batch.

“I think it was a quarter of what he thought a Percocet was, and that’s all it took, a quarter. said Kruse. “It probably wouldn’t have even lasted that long, but he never woke up.”

“Not enough to just say ‘no’ to drugs:” Bereaved Mukilteo mother on the need for fentanyl education

Fentanyl doesn’t matter if you’re a longtime addict or a kid newly addicted. 2021 was a record year for drug overdose deaths and more nationwide two-thirds involved fentanyl or other synthetic opioids.

Frank Tarentino is a DEA Special Agent-in-Charge overseeing the Seattle Field Division, but he’s a father first and tells his own children:

“This idea that you can choose to experiment and it will be okay isn’t what it used to be. It’s deadly,” Tarentino said.

Imagine 15 grains of salt, Tarentino said. This tiny amount of fentanyl is enough to kill, and it’s in almost every street drug. Or they’re disguised as blue pills that look like they came from a pharmacy, and that’s how so many young people end up.

“We are seizing an enormous amount of counterfeit prescription pills laced with fentanyl,” Tarentino said. “We confiscated 1.4 million pills in two months. That’s enough to kill everyone in Seattle.”

Despite attempts by the DEA and border police to thwart the smuggling, the Mexican government on the other side of the border is doing little to stop the cartels.

They produce it in secret storage labs using chemicals imported from China and India. And the smugglers are playing games with law enforcement to get by, said Ali Bradly, an independent journalist involved with US Customs and Border Protection and other law enforcement agencies.

“We have so many people crossing our border every day and we don’t have the agents to do the work and be there,” Bradley said.

Border officials encounter more people than ever attempting to cross the border; this year so far well over a million children and adults.

“Cartels know that when they create these humanitarian crises, they’re pushing people into the unmanned areas,” Bradley said. “In this way, imported drugs that are not picked up at our checkpoints are also smuggled through.”

The border police have just released their drug seizure figures for April. Agents stopped more than 1,200 pounds of fentanyl from entering the U.S. the highest monthly amount in the last four years.

But they can’t catch everything, and that leaves the cleanup to the DEA… and the local women and men in blue.

On a recent morning, the Snohomish County Regional Task Force was tracking a drug operation in which a caravan of police pulled up at a trailer home where a suspected drug dealer lives.

The man they find is a low-level dealer who was arrested about five years ago.

But when the pandemic struck and he lost his job building, he needed extra income to support his family in Mexico.

He said he makes about an extra $150 a day. The drugs he sells come from Mexico and are delivered to him through a middleman in Seattle.

He claimed not to know that the pills he sells contain fentanyl, saying only, “A lot of people look for it [them].”

In the man’s trailer, police found plastic bags filled with hundreds of the pills. Commander Jay Baines, who oversees the task force, says, “Any one of these could be an overdose…any one of these pills could kill someone.”

Baines said almost all of the fentanyl they seize comes from Mexico.

“The crime down there and the cartel and the way they run things, I’m sure the government officials down there are scared to death of them,” Baines said. “And for the Mexican government to take responsibility for this, I think that’s an uphill battle for the United States and our borders, and it’s more open than ever.”

And so the fentanyl keeps pouring in and overdoses pile up.

Kendra Kruse, who lost her nephew Jayden Barker to fentanyl, knows there is no single solution, but she says education and awareness are key, especially among the youngest potential victims.

“It’s enough if you take a pill that a friend you trust gives you,” says Kruse. “And that’s it. You’re done.”

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