By Danielle Coston
For The New Orleans Tribune

The number of accidental drug-related deaths in Orleans Parish increased by 35 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to a report released by Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office.

Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Dwight McKenna

In 2021, there were 492 accidental drug deaths in New Orleans compared to the 365 overdose cases in 2020. Coroner Dr. Dwight McKenna is especially concerned as he points out that the vast majority of the overdoses were linked to fentanyl, a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and highly lethal drug.  

Just a small amount of the opioid, about two milligrams, can be immediately fatal. And because its cheap and highly-addictive, authorities with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency say some street drug dealers, in an effort to increase potency and create repeat business, are increasingly mixing fentanyl with other illegal substances such as cocaine, heroine, and even marijuana and selling it to unwitting buyers who cannot detect it and likely do not know that the drug they are using has been laced with fentanyl.

According to the Coroner’s Office, toxicology results were available for 462 of the 492 cases; and fentanyl was present in 434 of those results, representing 94 percent of the cases where results were available. In 2020, fentanyl was linked to about 78 percent of overdose deaths.

“The fact that 94 percent of overdose cases are linked to fentanyl shows our community faces a crisis that grows more severe each year,” says Dr. McKenna. 

The fentanyl crisis is not unique to New Orleans. Last September, critically acclaimed actor Michael K. Williams, who had been open about his long battle with drug addiction, died of an overdose after ingesting fentanyl-laced heroine.

Those close to the actor have said they do not believe Williams would knowingly use fentanyl. Earlier this year, New York-based federal prosecutors arrested and charged Williams’ dealer Irvin “Green Eyes” Cartegena with narcotics conspiracy for selling him the fentanyl-laced heroine.

Three other men were arrested in connection with William’s death, with prosecutor’s claiming that they continued to sell the same product knowing that it had caused William’s death.

Earlier this year, federal prosecutors in California also announced seven criminal cases against drug dealers accused of knowingly selling fentanyl-laced drugs that caused fatal overdoses in Orange County.

Closer to home, a Jefferson Parish man was arrested last year, accused of selling fentanyl-laced drugs to a Belle Chasse teen who overdosed just days before she was set to graduate form high school.

A Public Health Crisis

And while this approach may appear to make sense to some, others say that arresting street-level drug pushers for fentanyl related deaths does little to address a growing public health crisis that requires a holistic drug policy that combines education, awareness, prevention, compassion, and science along with health and human rights advocacy.

An effective drug policy must deal with more than reducing supply. It must deal with more than policing and arresting users or dealers. To be effective, it has to examine, understand and combat underlying issues that drive the sale and use of illegal drugs—issues like poor education, lack of economic opportunity, poverty and mental illness.

Whether knowingly or unwittingly, the use of fentanyl and overdoses and deaths linked to the lethal drug across the nation continue to rise

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were an estimated 100,306 overdose deaths in the U.S. in the 12 month period that ended April 2021, representing a 28.5 percent increase from the 78,056 deaths during the previous 12 months, adding that the overdoses connected to synthetic opioid (primarily fentanyl), also rose significantly for the same period. The CDC estimates that about 66 percent of overdoses nationwide are linked to fentanyl, 

Meanwhile, the fact that the DEA recognized the first-ever Fentanyl Awareness Day earlier this month on May 10 is yet another indicator of how this crisis has grown.

Dr. McKenna agrees, saying that overdoses related to fentanyl, along with other illicit drugs, have reached the crisis level in New Orleans. And with his recent report, he hopes to sound the alarm.

“We are seeing similar high numbers across the country, and it proves just how deadly fentanyl is,” Dr. McKenna says. “This year’s report serves as a warning to make all citizens aware that (highly lethal) fentanyl is regularly being cut into cocaine and street pills. Because of fentanyl, using street drugs in this day and age is like playing Russian roulette with your life.” 

Dr. McKenna’s report also indicates that 2021’s most of the overdose victims were Black (62 percent) and mostly male at 77 percent.

Most of the available toxicology results indicated that multiple drugs were present in overdose cases. Cocaine was linked to about 60 percent of the cases, up from 2020 when about 40 overdose toxicology results tested positive for cocaine.

Amphetamines was linked to 20 percent of overdose cases in 2021, slightly higher than the 18 percent of cases that tested positive for this drug the previous year.

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