The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services last winter warned about the arrival of acetyl fentanyl, a drug five times more potent than heroin that had killed three people in Person, Sampson and Transylvania counties and sickened another in Cumberland County.
This month, three people died in Chatham County and eight others were sickened by a pain killer with a very similar name, fentanyl, but with one major difference. State health authorities say fentanyl is 20 times more potent than heroin, and state law enforcement officials say people are increasingly using the drug to get high.
The two drugs have one important common denominator: They can kill their users, who many times do not realize they are even ingesting the substances. In the case of the Chatham County deaths, fentanyl had been combined with powder cocaine, according to the State Bureau of Investigation.
Fentanyl has been used by hospitals since 1968 to induce anesthesia in patients before surgery or to treat chronic pain. It is only available by prescription and is strictly controlled in hospital settings, said Dr. Ruth Winecker, chief toxicologist with the state Department of Health and Human Services.
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But now state toxicologists are seeing a spike in the street-level use of the drug that is not pharmaceutical grade but instead produced in labs and substituted for other drugs such as heroin. SBI technicians are seeing the drug cut with substances usually mixed with heroin, such a quinine and mannitol.
State analysts have seen about a 50 percent increase since 2013 in overdose cases where fentanyl has been detected, Winecker said.
Fentanyl’s potency cannot be overstated.
“The general message is that the drug is available only in hospital settings, under a doctor’s care and prescribed for unrelenting severe pain, and if you’re using it (without a doctor), then it’s extremely dangerous,” Winecker said. “When you go under anesthesia with a drug like fentanyl, the anesthesiologist’s sole job is to keep you alive. No one is there if you’re using it on your own.”
While fentanyl has been around for decades, acetyl fentanyl did not emerge as a street drug in North Carolina until about 1-1/2 years ago, state health and law enforcement officials say.
SBI agents are seeing more “clusters” of overdoses like the ones that occurred in Chatham County this month when illicit dealers sell mixtures of either acetyl fentanyl or fentanyl and heroin, said Donnie Varnell, an SBI special agent.
“The overdoses we have been mostly seeing are from a mixture of acetyl fentanyl and heroin. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘China White,’” Varnell said. “A lot of times people really don’t know what they’re getting.”
Winecker likened acetyl fentanyl to heroin because it has no medical use.
“They are both very powerful,” Winecker said about fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl. “They are both narcotic analgesics, like the other drugs in that class. If you’re not in pain, you experience euphoria when you use them.”
Varnell pointed out that fentanyl poses a potentially dangerous and deadly threat even to non-users who live near where the substance is produced in clandestine labs.
“Fentanyl dust is very fine and very deadly,” Varnell said. “There are special kinds of filters in the masks to filter out the dust in the labs. It’s almost like a hazardous materials crime scene.”
The Chatham County overdose deaths and illnesses all occurred within six hours of each other at three places in Bear Creek and Siler City.
Calls to emergency dispatchers started coming in just before midnight on Dec. 6, beginning at a home on Curtis Brower Road in Bear Creek, which is in southwestern Chatham County. A 29-year-old man reported that Michael Demetrius Currie, 41, had been found unresponsive on a deck outside, according to a sheriff’s office incident report.
Currie died at his home, the sheriff’s office reported.
Then a 43-year-old man called at 12:13 a.m. from a home on N.C. 902 in Bear Creek to report two people, Perry Logan Sanders, 23, of Aurora, Mo., and Randal Dee Welch, 24, of Franklinville, were both suffering from cocaine overdoses.
The sheriff’s incident report indicated that one of the victims died at the home, while the second was pronounced dead at a hospital.
An hour and a half later, at 1:44 a.m., emergency dispatchers were called about another drug overdose involving three people in the 100 block of Santa Fe Circle in Siler City. The victims’ names were not made public, but the incident report described them as two women, ages 18 and 25, and one 19-year-old man.
In all, six people were sick by the drug on Santa Fe Circle, in the Country Living Estates mobile home park outside Siler City, said Mike Roberson, chief deputy with the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office.
Emergency workers transported some of the victims to hospitals in Siler City, Sanford and Chapel Hill. Others were treated on scene with Narcan, a brand of naloxone, a substance that counteracts the effects of drug overdoses for heroin and other opioids.
“The Narcan knocked out the narcotic effects, and we didn’t have any more deaths,” Roberson said.
Hours after the overdoses, sheriff’s deputies arrested Edwin Maurice Pennix, 38, of Siler City and charged him with multiple felony drug violations: sale and delivery of cocaine, sale and delivery of marijuana and conspiracy to sell and deliver cocaine. Investigators also charged Pennix with two felony probation violations for previous cocaine convictions.
State records show that Pennix has felony drug convictions dating back to 2010 and served time in prison in 2012 for the felony sale of cocaine.
In 2006, when Pennix was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, cocaine played a role in the death of Darrle Jevon Harris.
Records at the Chatham County Clerk of Court Office show that on July 3, 2006, Pennix and Harris got into a fight at another man’s home in Bear Creek. Court records indicate that Harris attacked Pennix, knocking him to the floor, where he continued to kick and punch him.
The two men fell over a living-room table that broke. Pennix grabbed a table leg and struck Harris in the head several times. Pennix left the home. Harris later collapsed and died.
Law officers initially charged Pennix with first-degree murder. The charge was later reduced to second-degree murder, and Pennix eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter after the state medical examiner determined that Harris “had ingested a significant amount of cocaine prior to his death.”
An autopsy showed that Harris died of a heart attack during the fight, with contributing causes being “severe coronary artery disease and cocaine intoxication.”
Pennix was sentenced to two years’ probation, court records show.