The number of deaths linked to fentanyl has nearly tripled over 2019, according to county officials, with days left to go in the year.
During a recent work session of the Franklin County Fiscal Court, officials from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office said there have been four deaths in the last two months linked to fentanyl disguised as Xanax pills.
Rather than being authentic Xanax, or alprazolam, used for anxiety or panic disorders, the fake pills are actually fentanyl. Though fentanyl is legal for pain control, it is often abused and is up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
The fake pills are “basically a depressant that helps you escape reality,” FCSO Sgt. Lucas DeBorde told the Franklin County Fiscal Court during its workshop session Dec. 18. “These have been out since early in the year.”
Franklin County Coroner Will Harrod said fentanyl-related deaths have nearly tripled from seven in 2019 to 20 to date in 2020. Those deaths include cases where fentanyl may have been mixed with other substances, he said.
“Though we are aware of fentanyl disguised as Xanax, we cannon determine which of these individuals have specifically ingested the ‘fake pills’ as we have not recovered any of these form the scene of the death investigations thus far,” Harrod said in an email.
Frankfort Fire and EMS Chief Wayne Briscoe said they don't track fentanyl-related cases specifically, but overdose calls in general are up, and may surpass the last two years.
Since July 1, Briscoe said EMS personnel have responded to 154 overdose calls, with 87 of those classified as opioid-related, which includes fentanyl. In fiscal year 2020, EMS responded to 278 total overdoses and 109 opioid; In FY 2019, there were 209 total and 148 opioid.
"We are trending to have more than the last two years," Briscoe said.
Fentalyl-laced drugs are nothing new, though. The National Institute on Drug Abuse said it was an emerging trend in 2016. Fentanyl is deadly in small doses, according to the NIDA. It also poses threats to first responders, as the drug is absorbed through the skin and can lead to overdoses.
The Drug Enforcement Administration said fentanyl, a synthetic drug, is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Doses as small as 2 milligrams can be fatal to most people.
Overdoses can be reversed through the use of naloxone or Narcan.
Other parts of Kentucky have seen increases in fake pills laced with Xanax. In April, Louisville Police and FBI officials seized approximately 8,500 fake Xanax pills while executing a search warrant. Last month, officials in Monticello in Wayne County seized about 400 Xanax bars during a traffic stop, though some were determined to be fake.
In some instances, the false pills have been sold in bottles with authentic-looking labels.
DeBorde said the fake pills are being manufactured by others with a pill press.
The appeal, DeBorde said, is economic.
“The reason it’s happening is it’s so much cheaper to buy this fentanyl from China and press it into a Xanax tablet and sell it as Xanax,” he said. “Xanax is expensive to actually go and get it as a prescription and sell it.”