‘It is killing people’: The fentanyl crisis in Lawrence is on the rise and ‘it’s everywhere in the city’

photo by: Drug Enforcement Administration

Many substances can be laced with fentanyl, and people can often unknowingly ingest it when they think they're taking a different substance, such as Xanax, OxyContin or heroin.

In May of last year, the Lawrence Police Department warned the community about a potent drug that was killing area residents.

It was not the usual “stay away from drugs” message directed at teens, but something far more urgent and directed at everyone: “About three to five grains of table salt — that’s the potential fatal dose of fentanyl for an adult,” a department news release stated. “We’re not trying to scare people,” interim Chief of Police Adam Heffley was quick to say. “What we’re trying to do is save someone’s life.”

A year and a half later, the dire warning has largely gone unheeded — with devastating results for many local families.

“It is truly dangerous,” Sgt. Josh Guile, who oversees LPD’s Directed Investigation Unit, re-emphasized recently to the Journal-World. “It is killing people,” right here in Lawrence, as well as across the nation.

“In Kansas, there’s been a 43% increase in overdose deaths, many of which have been attributed to fentanyl,” according to Senior Assistant Douglas County District Attorney David Greenwald.

From the beginning of this year, the Lawrence Police Department has seen an estimated 15 deaths, according to Laura McCabe, a spokesperson with LPD.

In 2018, for context, the number of opioid deaths in Lawrence was two. By 2021, that number had risen to 17, and authorities believe that “the new dominance” of fentanyl, as McCabe described it, is behind that 750% increase.

What’s driving this deadly epidemic? Largely ignorance, authorities say, in that people believe they are taking one kind of drug — say prescription Xanax or OxyContin or even heroin — but are actually consuming a substance that has been laced with fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is safe to assume that most illegal drugs will be laced with fentanyl,” Chrissy Mayer, DCCCA’s chief community-based services officer, told the Journal-World this week.

This deadly scenario is a familiar — and personally heartbreaking — one for Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, whose brother died in 2019 from an accidental fentanyl overdose.

Valdez told the Journal-World that her brother, Christopher Valdez, a Gulf War veteran, “purchased what he thought was OxyContin on the street for his back pain. However, the pill was poisoned with fentanyl.”

His sudden and unexpected death at age 48 left six children without a father.

It’s a case that illustrates what Guile with LPD says is profoundly upsetting about these needless deaths.

“These people that have passed away from fentanyl use had families, these people had friends, these people had people that cared about them, that are missing them,” he said.

Valdez’s office is currently prosecuting nearly a dozen defendants in separate cases for distribution of fentanyl that has led to death or great bodily harm, according to Greenwald.

The Journal-World has reported on some of these Lawrence cases, including that of an 18-year-old former high school athlete, a 32-year-old father of four, a 23-year-old woman, a 21-year-old man and others who presumably did not suspect the lethality of what they were ingesting — and whose obituaries noting hobbies and accomplishments seldom indicate why they are no longer with us.

Many fentanyl victims in the area have been relatively young.

“Young people who are experimenting with substances are especially vulnerable,” Mayer said, but the crisis is not limited to a particular generation or part of town, as Guile and Valdez both indicated.

“It’s everywhere in the city,” Guile said. “It’s the entire city (of Lawrence) and throughout all age groups as well.”

It also cuts across all socioeconomic boundaries, Valdez said.

“Our hope is that the prosecution of those involved in making money from selling this dangerous drug will raise public awareness. We cannot stress enough the potency of this drug — even trace amounts of fentanyl can kill,” Valdez said.

Guile noted that fentanyl is so “incredibly dangerous” that officers handling drug evidence “take extreme precautions.”

“I couldn’t tell you the exact small amount that would be a lethal dose” with regard to any particular individual, he said, but “it does not take a large amount for it to start being scary.”

One way that people can tell if a drug contains fentanyl is through simple paper test strips, which the CDC encourages drug users to employ. However, such test strips are considered illegal drug paraphernalia in many states, including Kansas.

Despite the state law, the Wichita City Council passed a city ordinance in September that decriminalized the possession of fentanyl test strips in the state’s largest city.

In Lawrence, Guile said, the police department does not have a stance on the test strips, “but we haven’t been seeing much of them.”

Valdez’s office, though, said that the DA, in exercising her prosecutorial discretion, would not prosecute possession of fentanyl test strips.

When interim Police Chief Heffley put out his public warning last year, LPD urged those who use drugs to have a support system in place — a move that some criticized as “enabling” drug use but that others praised for saving lives.

LPD noted that Lawrence’s DCCCA had prevention toolkits, counselors and even a free naloxone program. Naloxone is an overdose reversal drug. Police officers carry the drug — a nasal spray often known by the brand name Narcan — to revive overdose victims and also for their own protection if they are exposed to fentanyl.

DCCCA began implementing the naloxone program two years ago with money from the State Opioid Response grant program.

“Since August 2020, we have provided more than 24,000 kits to individuals and organizations in Kansas,” DCCCA’s Mayer told the Journal-World.

Mayer said the demand had vastly outpaced the resources, though, and DCCCA has operated the program on a waiting list since September of this year — with more than 1,700 folks on the list to be contacted when free naloxone is available again.

Mayer said DCCCA had received new funds last month and had purchased a new supply of naloxone. DCCCA will begin filling requests in coming weeks.

In the meantime, she noted that people can purchase naloxone at many pharmacies without a doctor’s prescription.

“Fentanyl is changing the landscape in our state,” Mayer said. “… We have to equip our communities to address this issue.”

DCCCA provides overdose prevention training free of charge. Its number is 785-841-4138. The naloxone request form is online at www.dccca.org/naloxone-program/.


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