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Fentanyl-Laced Cocaine Threatens To Put More College Students At Risk

Naloxone is an antidote that can help reverse drug overdoses.
John Minchillo
Associated Press
Narcan is an opioid overdose drug, but it can also revive people who overdose on fentanyl mixed into cocaine, a growing problem in the region.

Jordan, a college student in Central Ohio, is a lot like many of his classmates. He does well in school, has a part-time internship, a solid group of friends – and also uses cocaine.

WOSU agreed to not use Jordan’s last name because he uses illegal drugs. Jordan said he and his friends occasionally use cocaine in combination with alcohol, but none of them carry Naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug, in case of exposure to fentanyl.

That could be a deadly mistake.

Jordan says he’s doesn’t know what he would do if he or one of his friends overdosed.

“I feel like I’d be able to tell something wasn’t right, but I’m not sure I would be able to say right off the top that I’m overdosing on fentanyl,” Jordan said.  

The presence of the potent painkiller fentanyl in heroin contributed a huge spike in Ohio’s opioid epidemic. Now, prosecutors say cocaine users should be wary of fentanyl's deadly effects, too.

Figures from Franklin County death certificates show 30 percent of all overdose deaths in the county last year had both cocaine and fentanyl in their systems – more than double the number of cocaine-fentanyl related deaths the year before.

While cocaine can cause overdoses on its own, the increase in deaths where cocaine is present can at least partially be attributed to fentanyl, says Franklin County Chief Deputy Rick Minerd.

"Really, the story is not necessarily about cocaine deaths being up, but it's really about fentanyl showing up in pretty much everything," Minerd said.

This issue can affect anyone who uses illegal drugs, but one population is especially at risk: college students who use cocaine to party and study.

While some drug users may knowingly use cocaine and opioids in tandem, health officials say that likely isn’t the case for all drug users.  A public health notice released in January suggested that fentanyl is being laced into many street drugs.

“If you are using any substance, you don’t really know what you’re getting. Fentanyl can be mixed with it — and it can kill you,” said health commissioner Dr. Mysheika W. Roberts.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman, who covers the Southern District of Ohio, says this can be tied back to Mexican drug cartels trying to get more people trapped into opioid addiction.

“There's a real market that they can see where you can get people to take cocaine become addicted because you've got this other [heroin] drug problem here,” Glassman said. “Cartels will deliver large quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine to the people who are otherwise distributing fentanyl and other drugs like that and just say like see what you can do with this product.”

But unlike heroin users, who often carry Naloxone to reverse overdoses, people using cocaine usually don’t suspect it to be laced with painkillers like fentanyl. Minerd says he’s seen fentanyl affect unsuspecting people from all backgrounds.

“I've had people approach me in private and say, ‘Oh my God, my kid’s addicted, you know, I don't know where to go for help,’” Minerd said.

Minerd said nobody is immune from narcotics abuse.

“We've worked over those cases with some affluent areas of the city,” he said.

It might cross demographics, but exposure to fentanyl through cocaine is especially problematic for college students like Jordan.

Students have for years used prescription stimulants like Adderall to get ahead in their classes and achieve new highs when partying. Jordan said he started using Adderall to prepare for tests before experimenting with cocaine. Now he says cocaine is easy to get and gives him a better high.

Glassman said prescriptions for these stimulants are increasing, despite prescriptions for pain-relievers decreasing.

“You have people who may have a possible addiction to a prescription stimulant in much the same way that we had people getting possible addictions to an opioid because of prescription pain medication,” Glassman said.  

And just like pill users eventually turning to heroin, Glassman says cash-strapped students addicted to prescription stimulants may eventually turn to street drugs that are cheaper and stronger.

“It may well end up for that addict being cheaper, maybe more effective in the sense of getting a more potent high, to try to get that same chemical from a street drug like cocaine or methamphetamine,” Glassman said.

Jordan isn’t alone in his use of the drug on college campuses. Over 100 doses of Naloxone were administered in the off-campus living area immediately surrounding Ohio State. An additional five were administered on Ohio State’s campus itself, though a spokesman for Ohio State said he could not confirm whether the people who received Naloxone were students.

Minerd said he's seen fentanyl used as a cutting agent for almost every drug besides marijuana. So it's possible some of these 119 Naloxone dosages can be attributed to cocaine laced with fentanyl. 

For Jordan and other cocaine users like him, he doesn’t know where the drugs he and his friends share come from — and more dangerously — what’s in them.

“That's why the fentanyl thing is so scary,” Jordan said. “Because you have no idea where anything is sourced from truly unless you made it yourself.”