Drugs have been cutting a huge swath of misery and death through our community for years. As COVID-19 gouged an even deeper well of suffering, it also diverted attention from the drug crisis. Pollution and petty crime rates dropped when the streets were empty and many Americans were sheltering in place. Substance abuse, though, has gotten worse.
A grim new milestone was revealed this month: Drug deaths from April 2020 to April 2021 totaled more than 100,000 nationally for the first time in a one-year period.
That tragic trend has been mirrored here. During 2020, Fort Wayne Police Department statistics showed a record 145 confirmed overdose deaths in Allen County, and 1,243 nonfatal overdoses, also a record. So far this year, there have been 100 confirmed deaths, with 70 more cases awaiting toxicology findings.
Strategies to control illicit use of prescription drugs and to eliminate local methamphetamine labs have had some success. But those who once depended on pill mills, cheap heroin or two-liter-bottle meth concoctions are finding new and even more dangerous kinds of drugs in our community today.
“We're seeing a huge increase in fentanyl really hitting the streets this year,” said Kevin Hunter, captain of Administrative/Vice & Narcotics and the oversees the department's anti-addiction Hope and Recovery Team.
In 2019, the department seized 1,504 grams of fentanyl, then a record. “This year alone to the end of October, we have seized 4,892 grams,” Hunter said, “which is ... awful. If you think about that, that's almost 21/2 million fatal doses of fentanyl that have been seized by the police department. ... If we're seizing that much, there's even more out on the street right now.”
Fentanyl is a particularly sinister drug, a synthetic opioid many times more powerful than heroin. In a medical setting, it can provide quick relief from severe pain. Misused, a tiny amount can kill.
But with other opioids scarcer or more expensive, users knowingly accept fentanyl, or acquire it unknowingly in counterfeit Percocet pills that appear to be flooding Fort Wayne. The consequences are devastating.
“It's really scary,” said Aisha Diss, who heads project.ME, a local group that provides support and peer mentoring for those trying to get free of drugs. “Not that (other) substances aren't deadly or harmful, but not as quickly as fentanyl,” Diss said. “You'll see people just experimenting or think that they're using heroin for the first time, and it's contaminated with fentanyl – they can die the very first time they try a substance.”
Even as witting or unwitting use of fentanyl has grown, local addiction victims are also turning again to meth, Hunter said.
Fueled by pseudoephedrine from over-the-counter cold remedies, homegrown meth “labs” plagued northeast Indiana a few years ago.
Their potentially deadly products aside, do-it-yourself meth-cooking operations caused fires and explosions and exposed children, police and clean-up crews to hazardous contaminants.
After legislation and pharmacy cooperation drastically reduced criminals' access to pseudoephedrine, the labs began to disappear. None has been encountered by police this year, Hunter said.
But that's the silver lining to a potentially bigger problem. The meth in Fort Wayne now is even more dangerous. “The Mexican cartels have filled that gap and flooded the market with very cheap, very pure meth,” Hunter said.
It appears the drug problem worsened during the pandemic for the same reasons mental health challenges mounted.
“I think the pandemic just hit everybody really hard,” Diss said.
Hunter agreed. “People being isolated, just having a lot of time on their hands,” he said. “You know, the opposite of addiction is connection. So if people aren't connected to others, it seems ... they run to different substances to seek relief.”
Those who began fighting the drug epidemic before the virus pandemic are determined to stay the course. There are more federal, state and local resources available now. Outreach programs such as project.ME and the police department's Hope and Rescue Team are following up to offer help to those who survive overdoses and are ready to stop using drugs.
Since it began two years ago, Hope and Rescue has connected more than 300 people with treatment programs at centers such as Fort Wayne Recovery and Avenues Recovery Center. The county health department's syringe exchange has cut disease transmissions and offered to link others to help. Project.ME, which started in March 2019, is just one of many private organizations that work with the police and health agencies to reach out to abusers.
Hunter believes such efforts have begun to turn the corner on this latest surge in substance abuse. Nonfatal overdoses have dropped significantly during the past three months.
Diss, a former user who joined the fight against drug abuse after serving a prison sentence, is hopeful, too.
“All these recovery supports are starting to gain momentum,” she said. “Everyone's working collaboratively, which is awesome.”