The ultra-potent drug, which was revealed to have killed Prince in April, has become increasingly common in the Garden State during the last few years. New data from the New Jersey Medical Examiner's Office shows that through the first six months of 2015, it killed people at eight times the monthly rate compared to 2013.
Through June 2015, the most recent data available, fentanyl killed 150 people, more than in all of 2014. And this after deaths tripled from 2013 to 2014 in New Jersey.
"Fentanyl is deadly," said Carl J. Kotowski, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Newark office. "With heroin, an addict can possibly survive an overdose. But with fentanyl there are often no do-overs or second chances. All you need is a very small amount and it can be fatal."
Until recently, fentanyl was a prescription medication typically only given to the most severe chronic-pain victims, such as end stage cancer patients. But, according to the DEA, the drug is now shipped into the United States illegally from China or manufactured by Mexican drug cartels, who smuggle it across the U.S.-Mexico border.
The drug adds a confounding wrinkle to law enforcement fighting the heroin epidemic in New Jersey, which has enslaved at least 128,000 and killed more than 700 in 2014. Data shows that the heroin monthly death rate also rose significantly in the first half of 2015, and is likely to rise again for the 6th straight year.
Fentanyl is especially troubling for law enforcement for a number of reasons.
"It's a tough situation," Kotowski said. "A lot of times when we go into cases and make seizures, we don't know what we're getting. We think it's heroin and then the lab results come back and it turns out its fentanyl."
Atlantic County Investigator Dan Kallen and Detective Eric Price were confronted by fentanyl's potency firsthand during a recent investigation.
In a video produced by the DEA, Kallen said he was in the process of sealing a bag of fentanyl following a narcotics investigation when a small puff of powder blew into his face, as well as Price's.
Almost immediately, both officers said it felt like their bodies began to shut down.
"People around me said I looked really white. I lost color," Price said. "It really just felt like ... I thought that was it. I thought I was dying. That's what my body felt like."
Kallen said he was taken aback by how little it took for both of them to be incapacitated by the drug.
"It wasn't like the whole bag had dumped out or anything like that," he said. "It was so quick and it was such a small amount."
Kotowski said fentanyl is unlike any drug he has dealt with in his career.
"I've been an agent for 32 years. I've never had a situation where you have to be that concerned that if you don't handle a particular drug properly as a law enforcement official that it can be fatal to you."
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