OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Nebraskans and Iowans addicted to pain pills face a growing risk while chasing their next fix.
Drug dealers are mixing the synthetic opioid fentanyl into black-market pills that look just like the illicit prescription drugs that addicts use. It’s made these lookalike pills more addictive and deadly.
3 News Now Investigators spoke with Shelley Barker, a recovering opioid addict who now counsels people fighting addiction at Centerpointe’s Campus for Hope in Omaha.
She says she sees people struggling with an opiate, fentanyl, that is more addictive and dangerous than the prescription pain pills she abused for 20-plus years.
Users describe its euphoric effects as intense – akin to the initial high most drug users chase with larger quantities later. It’s strong because it was designed initially to be used in operating rooms, experts say.
“There’s just there’s so much out there laced with fentanyl right now, that it’s sad,” Barker said. "Anybody who’s using right now are lucky to make it into treatment or to get help.”
Barker’s boss, Tiffany Gormley, directs the short-term residential drug treatment unit at Centerpointe. She says fentanyl makes a difficult recovery process harder, even with medicines to step folks down.
People seeking treatment for fentanyl use are facing more extreme withdrawal symptoms than from typical opiates, including feeling ill with cold sweats, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea.
It’s also making drug relapses more dangerous, both said, as people who use again after trying to quit try to use amounts of prescription drugs they could handle and end up getting fentanyl.
“Many people go back to the same amount that they were using, and they die,” Barker said.
Inexperienced users who think they’re buying Oxycontin or Xanax on the street end up overdosing, said Sgt. Dave Bianchi of the Omaha Police Department’s narcotics unit. Some end up dead.
“This is a national problem, and it seems to be increasing,” Bianchi said. “And it’s a bigger problem than what people know, unless it’s affected your family.”
Omaha Fire and Rescue Paramedic Shift Supervisor Wendee Brown says her crews are hearing from addicts they’ve revived from overdoses who thought they were taking a pill they could handle.
Local overdose statistics from first responders show it, too, with unintentional overdoses in Omaha climbing from 42 in 2016 to 62 in 2019 and 97 in 2020, department statistics show.
“You know we see it basically across the entire city,” Brown said. “Routinely we see it downtown. We see it out west. We see it south. And we see it north.”
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who also serves as the county’s coroner, said his office is now digging into local overdose deaths to see which drugs each person was using at the time they died.
Kleine said his coroner’s physician had already seen enough anecdotal evidence to say it appears that fentanyl-related overdose deaths are rising in the Omaha area.
Earlier this month, he offered an example, saying that three of the past four people who had died of drug overdoses in Nebraska’s most populous county had fentanyl in their system.
Dr. Kenneth Zoucha, who trains the next generation of addiction specialists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says fentanyl is 100 times stronger than morphine.
The drug, in doses as small as grains of salt, can cause people to stop breathing and stop their heart, he said. Users who don’t know if it’s there lack an easy way to test for its presence in pills.
“They take what they think is going to be enough to get the euphoric effect that they’re looking for, and there’s fentanyl inside of that medication, they end up accidentally overdosing,” he said.
Lt. Eric Kauffman of the Nebraska State Patrol’s Investigative Services Unit says fentanyl reaches beyond cities and into rural areas. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency agrees.
“We see it everywhere,” said Justin King, the DEA special agent in charge of the upper Midwest, including Nebraska. “It could be on a college campus. It could be at a high school. It could be some people working out in farmland. All it takes is a couple people ... introducing it to an area.”
Web extra: Recovering opioid addict's perspective on fentanyl
Omaha started seeing fentanyl in the late 2010s. It showed up in heroin and got cut it into lookalike pills, investigators said. Now, they say, users should assume it’s in most illicit prescription pills sold.
Many addicts in the opioid community know this and have started seeking out fentanyl pills instead of what they once used, Bianchi said, and dealers are starting to sell them that way.
Bianchi says people who know or care about an addict should know about Nebraska’s Good Samaritan law. It protects people from being arrested for drugs when calling 911 for someone overdosing.
He also suggested that anybody who has a loved one addicted should talk to their local pharmacist about getting the legal drug NARCAN. The nasal spray revives people from overdoses.
Zoucha, from UNMC, says people who want to quit can start by calling their doctor. Most will refer them to counseling and other help, including prescribed drugs that help wean them off of opioids.
He says the stigma around addiction is rightly subsiding.
“This is a disease,” he said. “This is not a choice that people are making. It’s something that just happens as part of this disease process, and we need to treat them with empathy and compassion just like we treat folks who have cancer or diabetes.”