TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- A dangerous drug that is killing people across the Tri-Cities region is also hard for law enforcement to combat.
Fentanyl is a powerful drug used legally to treat extreme pain, but it is now being made and sold on the illegal drug market.
Illicit versions of fentanyl are up to 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and lethal in very small doses. The Tennessee Department of Health issued a health advisory on fentanyl earlier this year.
Dr. Clay Renfro lost his only son, Frederick Renfro, to a fentanyl overdose. “We knew there was some problem for several years but getting him to accept that he had a problem was the big issue.”
Dr. Renfro said his son suffered from depression and kidney stones for most of his life and had to take medication which eventually led to the addiction.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, from 2015-2016 the Volunteer State saw a 74 percent increase in drug overdose deaths related to fentanyl.
In 2015, 169 Tennesseans died from fentanyl while 294 people died in 2016.
The Virginia Department of Health reported a 176 percent increase in fatal fentanyl overdoses during that same time period. Reports show 225 Virginians died in 2015 and 622 died in 2016.
“When you’re dealing with something so powerful at very microscopic amounts it’s uncontrollable,” said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Tommy Farmer. He also said it is hard for law enforcement to get control of the problem because fentanyl is being made overseas in China and Mexico then shipped into the United States, often, undetected.
“It’s much easier to identify tons of drugs coming in or kilos of drugs coming in versus grams coming in,” said Farmer, who also heads up the Tennessee Dangerous Drugs Task Force. He said grams of fentanyl could potentially be exposed to tens and hundreds of thousands of people. Farmer also said drug dealers always look to get around the law. “[Drug dealers try to] change the formula of the analog so it doesn’t fall in our controlled substances and it can be shipped into our country undetected. Or we may not even know what it is and it may take us awhile to figure out what it is before we can act on it.”
Dr. Renfro’s son used the dark web to buy a lethal dose of fentanyl from China. Investigators said he was dead within hours of getting the package and taking the fentanyl.
“We have to put a stop to these packages that are coming in that contain this poison that is killing our people,” said Deputy Attorney General Gene Perrin with the Sullivan County District Attorney General’s Office.
Perrin works on narcotics cases daily and said so far this year, he has identified seven overdose deaths related to fentanyl in Sullivan County.
“When agents find the packaging and it’s clear it came from China, they can’t do anything, other than we can share that information with the postal inspector or share that information with the Drug Enforcement Agency,” said Perrin. But he said they are also being aggressive. “When there is a drug overdose, especially a drug overdose death, we’re trying to work and identify the source of the drug so we can go back after the individual who is profiting from it.”
Perrin said his office is currently prosecuting several cases that are directly related to a drug overdose involving fentanyl.
Earlier this month, a TBI investigation led to the indictment of a Kingsport man on several drug charges related to the distribution of fentanyl.
The 24th Judicial District Drug Task Force seized 10 kilograms of fentanyl during a traffic stop in Decatur County. It was one of the largest busts in Tennessee history. Officers also seized Carfentanil, fentanyl’s most powerful relative, in middle-Tennessee.
But Perrin said more has to be done to make a dent in the illegal market. “We’re treading water at best,” he said. “First and foremost we’ve got to scale back the prescribing of the opioids because that sets the foundation. The over-prescribing created this problem and that’s something that’s got to be addressed.” Perrin said it will also take everyone coming together.
The Sullivan County District Attorney General’s Office is also working with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office and Bristol and Kingsport police departments to create a drug overdose death task force.
“Often times on the front end we don’t know why the person died so we’re trying to provide to detectives resources through our narcotics officers and drug task force so we can be out there. We can run names, use phones, all the investigative things we need to try and work it back,” Perrin described. He also said first responders will be trained to recognize the importance of contacting law enforcement so they can get involved in suspected drug overdose cases.
The Dangerous Drugs Task Force also helps law enforcement combat the opioid abuse epidemic. It provides equipment, training, and support to help local departments address the problem in their communities and clean-up drug labs. TBI SAC Farmer said prevention is also key. “We have to prevent on the backend or it will continue to happen again and again. That’s going after those children affected by that community or by that family, the drug-endangered children, and changing the culture, the way we look at drugs, the way we look at pain, the way we receive our information about these things,” he said.
If you’re suffering from substance abuse and need immediate help call the Tennessee Redline at 1800-889-9789.
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