ITHACA, N.Y. — “The message that we’re trying to get out now is that fentanyl is in all street drugs. You should just assume that if you’re using or purchasing street drugs,” said Frank Kruppa, Tompkins County’s Public Health Director and Mental Health Commissioner.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. It often comes in the form of white powder that’s easily laced into cocaine or imperceptibly sprinkled on top of marijuana. It can be pressed into pills to resemble common pharmaceuticals, like blue morphine pills or adderall.

Fentanyl’s sinister ubiquity is due to its wide availability on the black market, and it’s cheaper as well as more addictive. The end game for dirty dealers, it seems, is to hook their users into a deeper addiction while maintaining a wider profit margin. 

Angela Sullivan, the executive director of the Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County, which counsels those dealing with addiction among other services it provides, said that, “My team is talking with people who come in to see us all the time about fentanyl, and that fentanyl is not just in opiates, fentanyl is in cannabis, fentanyl is in pills. It’s in all kinds of stuff.”

Kruppa and Sullivan’s message to the public does not just belong to department heads or officials. People who are struggling with addiction know all too well that whatever they buy off the street has a strong chance of being laced with the highly addictive, highly potent, and potentially deadly synthetic opioid.

One person who previously struggled with an opioid addiction and is currently homeless shared with The Ithaca Voice the presence they’ve seen fentanyl take in the illicit drug market.

“Fentanyl? They’re putting it in all the drugs to make them more addictive, and it’s killing people. I quit doing dope 6 and a half years ago,” they said, adding that fentanyl is the “one thing” they’re really scared of.

This individual shared that they’ve been drugged multiple times, knocked out by the the debilitating high fentanyl induces, and robbed .

“It’s like a light switch. There’s no pain or nothing. All of a sudden you’re just out. You start feeling all messed up and you’re like ‘What the hell?’ and then you wake up in the hospital if you wake up,” they said.

A different person currently struggling with addiction told The Ithaca Voice that if they were to buy drugs off a dealer they didn’t know or trust, they considered it a “50/50” chance that they were getting a substance laced with fentanyl.

“They’re putting it in everything,” they said. They added that due to unknowingly taking fentanyl, “I’ve almost died twice. I let somebody use my pipe and he put something in it before I left and I hit and as soon as I went downstairs I woke up 40 minutes later with the police and an ambulance narcanning me.” 

Narcan, a miracle drug by every right, is quickly able to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and bring someone back from the brink of death. One of the most common ways of administering it is via nasal spray. 

The overdoses in Tompkins County and nationally are all being pushed up by fentanyl. So much so that a national fentanyl awareness day was instituted on May 10. In 2020, there were almost 92,000 recorded drug overdose deaths nationally, of which 62% involved a synthetic opioid like fentanyl. That’s according to the CDC, which also released provisional data on Wednesday indicating that 2021 was another record high year for overdoses in the U.S., with more than 107,000 deaths, with a similar percentage being attributed to synthetic opioids, like fentanyl.

*Fentanyl and other synthetic overdoses nationally

Fentanyl test strips are available through local and regional harm reduction organizations, such as the Southern Tier AIDS Program, and REACH Medical, but the numbers of recorded deaths remain grim. 

Since Oct. 2019, all opioid related overdoses in Tompkins County have been related to a secondary substance such as fentanyl. That’s according to data distributed by the New York State Department of Health which, as of May 2022, most recently published figures for Sept. 2021’s overdoses.

The State Health Department’s data is not granular. It doesn’t filter fentanyl related overdoses away from other opioids but, from the state’s figures, it’s clear that fentanyl is the killer drug in the community. In 2020, of the 17 opioid related overdose deaths in Tompkins , three were related to heroin, and all 17 included another synthetic opioid, of which fentanyl is anecdotally the primary one. There were a total of 19 drug-related deaths in Tompkins County in 2020.

With fentanyl’s strong presence in the illicit drug market, and the demands of the pandemic on the Health Department decreasing, Kruppa said that fentanyl will become one of the main focuses for the Health Department.

“Fentanyl was something that we were talking about a lot pre-pandemic,” Kruppa said. “Obviously the pandemic changed our messaging priorities. […] There’s more work to be done with messaging around fentanyl.”

Correction (05/15/2022): A previous sentence in this article previously stated that fentanyl was not deadly on its own. Fentanyl is an incredibly dangerous as a street drug. It is potentially lethal in even very small doses.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn