Illegal drugs containing fentanyl have recently caused a wave of overdoses in Georgia, according to state health officials.

In the past two months, at least 66 visits to state emergency rooms have involved the use of cocaine, methamphetamines, counterfeit pills or other drugs likely containing fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Fentanyl pills (Via Georgia Health News)

The overdoses have also involved fentanyl contained in crack cocaine, heroin, painkillers and marijuana, the Georgian Ministry of Public Health said.

Fentanyl (rhymes with sentry) is mainly smuggled into this country from China and Mexico.

Savannah is an area that is seeing an increase in fentanyl overdose. Dr. Jay Goldstein, medical director of Memorial Health’s emergency department, said Friday that many habitual drug users who overdosed said they were surprised at the effect of the substance they took.

“They’re getting fat [narcotic] effect than they expected,” Goldstein told GHN. This includes teenagers who experiment with drugs, he said.

“I don’t think they believe they’re getting fentanyl,” he added.

Naloxone, a drug to reverse the effects of overdoses, has become more available to authorities and the general public in recent years. The drug works very well to save overdose victims, Goldstein said. “It’s an incredible reversal.”

Just this week, law enforcement officials reported seizing 65 kilograms of methamphetamine, 1 kilogram of heroin and a quarter kilogram of fentanyl in Gwinnett County. The seizure involved the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office, ATF Atlanta, Homeland Security Investigations and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The GBI Gang Task Force said the fentanyl seized accounted for 125,000 lethal doses, the AJC reported.

Photo credit: Georgia Bureau of Investigation

A GBI spokeswoman, Nelly Miles, said the agency was seeing “a significant increase” in fentanyl, as well as an increase in overdose clusters, opioid-related deaths and fentanyl seizures.

“In the crime lab alone, the lab has seen an 80% increase in fentanyl results over the past year,” Miles said. “We’ve also seen a disturbing trend of samples called ‘purple heroin/purp’ that contain both heroin and fentanyl.”

A national study released Thursday indicates that law enforcement seizures of pills containing illicit fentanyl increased nearly 50-fold between the first quarter of 2018 and the last quarter of 2021.

“It’s a national phenomenon,” said Hannah Cooper, Rollins Chair in Substance Use Disorders Research at Emory University.

Hannah Cooper (via Georgia Health News)

Fentanyl is used in the production of these substances to reduce the amount of the most expensive drug, such as heroin, that the dealer sells. “It comes down to efforts by manufacturers and dealers to cut costs,” she said.

In recent years, it has been mixed with stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, Cooper added.

Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have been rising in Georgia since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Between May 1, 2020 and April 30, 2021, fentanyl-related overdose deaths jumped more than 100% from the previous period, public health said.

Cooper said harm reduction strategies can stem the tide of overdoses and deaths.

These tactics include making fentanyl test strips – which can detect the substance in a drug product – more available, as well as naloxone (Narcan). Another strategy is to improve access to effective addiction treatment services, Cooper added.

Public health officials point out:

➡️ If you suspect a drug overdose, call 911 immediately, state the location of the overdose and stay with the person until help arrives.

➡️ Georgia has a medical amnesty law that protects people at risk of an overdose and callers seeking medical attention for drug overdoses.

➡️ Naloxone can be obtained from pharmacies in Georgia without a prescription under a standing order from the Commissioner of Public Health.

➡️ For access to services and immediate help in the event of a crisis, the Georgia Crisis & Access Line, 1-800-715-4225, is available 24/7.