Health officials are warning that communities nationwide are seeing the spread of the drug carfentanil, which is powerful enough to tranquilize three elephants.
The drug has been connected to three deaths in New Hampshire, according to The Associated Press, and it is reportedly 100 times more powerful than the drug fentanyl, which caused 500 overdose deaths in New Hampshire in 2016.
When manufactured legally, the drug is used in zoos to tranquilize large animals.
Carfentanil has already caused fatalities in the Washington suburbs, Maryland, Colorado and Midwestern states including Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Washington Post reports that health officials worry these deaths are just another symptom of a national heroin epidemic.
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"We have never seen death like we do now," said Tom Synan, head of Ohio's Hamilton County Heroin Coalition. He says many dealers will lace heroin with the synthetic opioid.
"It shows how callous these drug dealers are," he continued. "It has no human use whatsoever and they’re putting it out on the street and wreaking havoc."
In early 2015, Hamilton County saw an average of 20 to 25 reported overdoses a week. However, after law enforcement agencies discovered the spread of carfentanil in the county, overdoses skyrocketed. In one week in August, the department received between 175 to 200 overdose calls.
The substance is difficult to detect, so many users have no idea if the heroin they're buying is laced with the opioid, which is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine.
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"Some people are looking for it because it is a higher high," said Lt. Ryan Frashure, spokesman for Anne Arundel police in Maryland, which saw fatal carfentanil overdoses between April 1 and April 12. "And then you have those who don’t know, and take their normal dose and end up overdosing from their normal amount."
The drug makes it challenging for first responders, many of whom are now told not to test for heroin at crime scenes because they need to avoid exposure to carfentanil. Even a puff released from opening a bag of the drug can cause problems.
"Dogs can get a whiff of it, and it can be fatal," said Scott Maye, chemistry program manager at the Virginia Department of Forensic Sciences.
As the drug continues to spread across the country, officials are doing everything they can to educate the public and warn them.
"We on the front lines are struggling every day to keep people alive," said Synan.