New, synthetic opioid has officials concerned

Posted at 6:54 PM, May 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-04 18:54:32-04

Heroin is taking its toll all across the area.  In Harford County, there have already been 32 more overdoses, and at least one more overdose death than this same time last year.

It's a battle being waged at the local, state and federal levels.  For almost two years officials in Harford County have been attacking the drug use from every angle - prevention, treatment, and law enforcement.  But the numbers of heroin users, and lives lost keeps increasing.

"The people aren't getting the message of just how scary, just how dangerous this drug is,” said Harford County Sheriff Jeff Gahler.  “It's shocking, in my three-decades of law enforcement we haven't seen heroin more pure, more readily available and cheaper to buy."

A workgroup is churning out new ways to combat the deadly opioid, like getting new laws on the books for reporting overdoses.  Drug investigators respond to every overdose call and a drug task force is taking a multi-jurisdictional approach to targeting dealers and drug trafficking organizations.

"Because we combine all our resources within the county, in addition to partnership with the Maryland State Police that provides us statewide jurisdiction, and a partnership with the DEA that provides us Federal jurisdiction," Harford County Task Force Commander, Captain Lee Dunbar said.       

Now, that same task force is being warned by the Feds about a potent new street drug that could make fatal opioid overdoses skyrocket.  It's called W18.  The synthetic drug was developed in a Canadian lab back in the 1980s, but it was never approved.  The Sheriff's Office says it's being made in China and Mexico, and has arrived back on our shores.

"We've seen incidents as close as Philadelphia, Chicago,” said Dunbar.  “In Canada they're seizing it by the kilogram and out on the street, it can be 100-times more potent then fentanyl, and 10,000-times more potent then morphine."

Because it's so new, W18 is not yet illegal.  And alarmingly, there are no tests that can detect the synthetic drug in blood or urine.

"So right now there is no way to effectively test for it and identify it,” Dunbar said.  “So it may be present in some of our overdose deaths, but we just may not know about it."

While ABC2 News cameras were rolling Wednesday, crews were called to another fatal overdose in Aberdeen.  First responders thought it was heroin, but preliminary testing was positive for fentanyl, another synthetic opioid.  Harford County officials will know for sure in a few weeks.

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