Report: Ohio tops nation for fentanyl use

LISBON — Ohio is one of the biggest markets for the dangerous synthetic opioid coming from China, according to a report released this week by the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission.

The report showed that Ohio has the largest amount of positive lab test results for fentanyl in the nation.

The synthetic drug is largely to blame for an increase in overdose deaths not only in the state, but Columbiana County as well.

County Drug Task Force (DTF) Director Brian McLaughlin said the county has been dealing with fentanyl for about a year.

“It’s here … that is one of the reasons we had a big spike of overdoses,” he said.

There were more than a dozen confirmed overdose deaths in the county last year.

Fentanyl is attractive to drug users because it is cheaper than other drugs, but significantly more potent. A synthetic painkiller, it is known to be 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

According to previous statistics from the Ohio Department of Health, there were 1,115 unintentional fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2015 – more than double the amount from the year before.

Classified as a Schedule II drug, fentanyl was targeted for use by advanced cancer patients and legally available only through a nonrefillable prescription, the report stated, adding that U.S. doctors wrote 6.65 million prescriptions for fentanyl in 2014.

The drug can easily be diverted from its legal form and mixed with other illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine.

The report stated that illegal fentanyl is the most frequently seized synthetic opioid at the nation’s borders by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“In 2015, U.S. law enforcement seized a record amount (approximately 368 pounds) of illicit fentanyl,” the report stated.

In Ohio, there were 3,861 positive lab tests for the drug in 2015– 1,305 more than Rhode Island, which was the second in the nation with the most positive tests.

Coming in third for the most positive lab tests for the drug was Pennsylvania, at 897. The positive results were mainly targeted in the eastern states.

In January, U.S. Senate Bill 10 was introduced to declare the use of illicit fentanyl a public health crisis in the U.S. The legislation also seeks to encourage additional measures to increase treatment and prevention of the drug, and additional measures to reduce trafficking from China and Mexico through government partnership.

The report explained that China is a main supplier of the drug because its chemical and pharmaceutical industries are weakly regulated and poorly monitored.

“To reduce flows of fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances to the United States, U.S. regulators should re-examine policies and procedures for banning and controlling dangerous chemicals and work with their Chinese counterparts to improve regulations governing chemical exports,” the report stated.

McLaughlin noted that in Ohio legislators introduced Senate Bill 237, which seeks to reduce the weight of fentanyl required to constitute the “bulk amount” under the drug offense laws, resulting in increased criminal penalties for those found using or in possession of the drug.

The bill passed the Senate on Dec. 1 and was introduced to the House on Dec. 5.

McLaughlin has said stricter penalties are needed, since currently those found using or in possession of the drug are charged with a second-degree felony while anyone found using or in possession of the same amount of heroin are charged with a first-degree felony.

“It’s definitely going to help, because it took so much of it before to get a decent charge,” McLaughlin said.

According to the report, synthetic opioids are increasingly being trafficked across the southwest border of the U.S. or delivered through mail couriers. In 2015, border agents seized around 200 pounds of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids from Mexico, up from just eight pounds in 2014.

The U.S. and China have both attempted to address the illegal chemical flows by adding several synthetic chemicals to their list of controlled chemical substances, the report said.

The report also said that in October, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote to the United Nations Secretary General requesting that the two most common precursor chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl be added to the list of controlled chemicals under the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

Kerry has asked the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to be ready to make a decision on the request by its March meeting.

China — the world’s largest manufacturer and top exporter of pharmaceutical ingredients — would be bound to abide by the commission’s ruling, the report stated.

The country’s tax rebates for pharmaceutical company exports makes it even more attractive for high production and exports of the various chemicals.

“Chinese law enforcement and drug investigators are unable to effectively regulate the high volume of drugs and chemicals … the Chinese government, however, maintains that U.S. claims of China-sourced opioid shipments are exaggerated,” the report stated.

McLaughlin said the DTF is dealing with the pharmaceutical side of the problem as well.

“The biggest thing is we have to get the demand side to decrease. If the demand side isn’t decreased then there is just going to be someone else moving in to fill that void,” he said.

It doesn’t help that obtaining the drug is as simple as getting online.

According to the report, all forms of chemicals and fentanyl-making products can be bought online at relatively low prices Chinese distributors, and Chinese chemical manufacturers are able to mask their identities using online ordering systems.

In the meantime, local law enforcement will continue addressing the problem as they can, until more changes can be made, McLaughlin said.

“We are continuing to do what we do,” he said.

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