Sentencing in infant’s fentanyl-laced heroin death underscores national epidemic

MAITLAND, Fla. June 1, 2016 — Today a 29-year-old Columbus man was sentenced to 9 years in prison for the heroin overdose of his infant son. 11-month old Dominic Dickenson was initially thought to have died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, but was later found to have died from exposure to heroin laced with fentanyl on May 13th, 2015. The fentanyl-laced heroin was ingested by the infant in the bed he shared with his parents who prepared the drug there.[1] The death is yet another startling statistic in the epidemic of fentanyl-related heroin deaths in the United States.

Many have never heard of the substance linked to the baby’s death. A synthetic alternative to morphine, fentanyl is used to treat end-stage cancer patients dealing with severe pain. But now, far from a doctor’s care, fentanyl has made it’s way into heroin. Drug dealers have been cutting fentanyl into heroin sold on the street. The Drug Enforcement Administration dubbed mixtures containing 50 percent or more fentanyl as “killer heroin.” Fentanyl ingestion causing the death of an infant isn’t surprising to authorities. Fentanyl-laced heroin has been killing adults in the United States at an increasing rate over the past decade.

Drug dealers began adding the synthetic opiate to heroin to increase it’s potency, trying to make up for dilution happening throughout the supply chain before they receive it. The danger of introducing the mixture is an increase fatality rate. Compared with heroin, fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more powerful. Compared with morphine, the opioid is 50 to 100 times more powerful. To put that potency into perspective, it only takes two milligrams or less to kill. That dose is equivalent to a few grains of salt.

Fentanyl’s addition into heroin creates a different high. That high is far more powerful and it’s effects more pronounced as the combination of heroin and fentanyl amplifies the potency of both drugs. Regardless of it’s intake method, the result for users of the dangerous combination are exaggerated confusion, depression, drowsiness, nausea and lethargy. In extreme cases unconsciousness, respiratory depression and death occur.

Between 2005 and 2007 an epidemic of fentanyl-laced heroin overdose deaths occurred. In those years more than 1,000 people in the cities of Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia died from the lethal combination. The fentanyl was identified as originating in a lab in Mexico by the DEA. Cartels in Mexico manufacturing illicit fentanyl have found a winning combination – a highly sought after, potent drug that is easier and cheaper to manufacture than heroin itself.[2]

From late 2013 to 2014 federal officials estimate no less than 700 fentanyl-related deaths in the United States. Sporadic, localized epidemics have continued to grow in 2015 and 2016 creating heightened concern. A much more sobering statistic comes from a 2015 Center of Disease Control report: Of approximately 28,000 opiod overdoses in 2014, fentanyl was involved in 5,554 fatalities. Those fatalities represent a 79 percent increase over 2013.[3] Last year DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart called fentanyl-related overdoses a “significant threat to public health and safety.”

While alarming, the number of fentanyl-related deaths is likely to be far higher. Identifying presence of the substance requires special toxicological testing. That testing has historically only been run when there is a specific reason to suspect the drug.[4] With heroin already capable of mortality on it’s own, running tests for fentanyl isn’t the norm for state crime labs.

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[1] Father sentenced after toddler dies of heroin overdose. WBNS-10TV. Jun 1, 2016. Web. Jun 1, 2016.

[2] Illicit Version Of Painkiller Fentanyl Makes Heroin Deadlier. NPR. All Things Considered, Aug 26, 2015. Web. Jun 1, 2016.

[3] As Fentanyl Deaths Spike, States and CDC Respond. Pew Charitable Trusts. Apr 1, 2016. Web. Jun 1, 2016.

[4] Heroin Epidemic Is Yielding to a Deadlier Cousin: Fentanyl. New York Times. Mar 25, 2016. Web. Jun 1, 2016.