In the Sioux Falls area alone, overdose deaths are up 50 percent so far this year over last, a majority of those were caused by the painkiller fentanyl.
The synthetic opioid, Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin. It’s cheap, easy to get and is increasingly being cut by suppliers into street drugs without buyers’ knowledge.
It’s what killed KELOLAND’s Angela Kennecke’s daughter Emily. Emily had enough fentanyl in her system to kill six people.
In this Eye on KELOLAND, Angela talks with other parents who have lost their children to fentanyl poisoning and looks into why fentanyl has led to the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history.
26-year-old Ryan Blomberg could never walk by a piano without stopping to play, often his own compositions.
But this gifted and talented young man also battled the demon of addiction. In 2016 he entered treatment and seemed committed to staying clean.
“He worked the 12 step program like none other. I mean his friends in the NA community were totally blindsided because they didn’t see any of this coming”, Denise Blomberg said.
What they didn’t see was Ryan buying what he thought was heroin in April. Denise got the call her son was found unresponsive in his apartment on a Tuesday afternoon.
“And then we waited 8 weeks for toxicology reports to come back and we found out it was pure fentanyl,” Blomberg said.
“I don’t think he knew. He wasn’t a stupid kid. He was a very, very highly intelligent child; worked. I mean none of the symptoms you think of as a user. I mean he had a job, he worked hard,” Randy Thompson said.
Randy Thompson’s 22-year-old son Cole died 14 days after Ryan.
“Fentanyl, what’s fentanyl? I’ve heard of heroin, everyone’s heard of heroin and you think of bums lying in the alley with needles, you know and I said he was doing heroin and it was laced with a deadly drug?” Thompson said.
“Fentanyl I believe is the most radical change in drug trafficking that we’ve ever seen in this country,” Quinones said.
Journalist Sam Quinones has tracked the opioid epidemic through two decades from prescriptions to a rise in illegal drug use.
“What you’re seeing is this is now the go-to additive, it’s very, very cheap, extraordinarily potent, extremely profitable additive you can put on anything,” Quinones said.
“We have found fentanyl laced in synthetic marijuana.” SD U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons said.
“A person who smokes marijuana drenched in fentanyl is going to become an opioid addict, same with cocaine,” Quinones said.
“And there are laboratories in China that have been developed or taken over by criminal enterprises and have been shipping fentanyl illegally to the United States, a lot of times by what is called the dark web,” Parsons said.
The justice department shut down the “dark web” site Alpha Bay this summer. Alpha Bay was a major source of fentanyl and heroin linked to overdose deaths.
“But there are other parts of the dark web where you can still order fentanyl and other drugs and hope they arrive in the mail,” Parsons said.
Parsons says a new federal law, with harsher punishments for cases involving overdoses, has led to charges against eight dealers in South Dakota in less than a year.
“I don’t think they’re worried at all about their customers, I think they’re worried about making money; and that’s what they’re doing. It’s about greed,” Parson said.
“We’ve got a drug war on our hands. We don’t need to worry about bombs we need to worry about fentanyl,” Blomberg said.
“We all need to work together and root this stuff out, that’s the only way we can win,” Parsons said.
These grieving parents say the only thing left for them to do now is speak out about what happened to their children, to try to save the lives of others.
“God, if you just save one person, anybody–make them think twice,” Thompson said.
“You don’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘geez I hope something happens to my child because I want to be an advocate for something.’ But it puts you in a spot where you’re left with nothing but that choice to make a difference so that your child didn’t die in vain. I never want to think that Ryan’s life didn’t matter,” Blomberg said.
There were 67 overdose deaths in South Dakota last year. The U.S. Attorney says he expects 2018 statewide numbers to be double that.
The Opioid Crisis Response Act currently making its way through Congress includes provisions to try to stop fentanyl from coming into the country through the mail from Mexico and China so easily.