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Overdoses Involving Cocaine and Fentanyl Are On The Rise

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked a recent increase in deaths involving cocaine and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked a recent increase in deaths involving cocaine and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

Updated July 7, 2021 at 2:11 PM ET

On a recent Thursday evening, three dozen people gathered in the backyard at Nowadays, a trendy club in Queens, N.Y., to learn how to use naloxone, a nasal spray that reverses overdoses from opioids. The training was organized by a group of nightlife and health care professionals called Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.

Some in attendance showed up because they had seen posts on social media saying that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that's about 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, was being cut into cocaine, putting unsuspecting party goers at risk.

"These parties are just coming back, and I've already heard of three or four different circumstances in which people have overdosed or in which people have tested their drugs and they've tested positive for having fentanyl in them," said Nicholas Grubbs.

The 27-year-old said in the nightlife scene he's a part of, people don't typically use opioids such as heroin or fentanyl, but they do dabble in cocaine and other drugs.

Similar reports of suspected overdose deaths from fentanyl-laced cocaine had popped up in Atlanta just a few weeks prior.

The reports from Atlanta and New York City remain unconfirmed. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tracked an alarming rise in deaths involving cocaine and synthetic opioids in recent years.

Fentanyl-laced cocaine may be happening by accident

So how worried should drug users be?

National data show that a relatively low percentage of the cocaine tested by law enforcement contains fentanyl, although the mixture has become more common. Less than 1% of the cocaine samples tested by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2016 contained synthetic opioids, according to figures provided to NPR; in 2020, it was up to 3.3%.

The prevalence of fentanyl in the cocaine supply also depends on where someone lives and what's in circulation at a given time. Cocaine users who have not built up a tolerance for opioids are at higher risk for overdosing from a small amount of fentanyl.

But researchers say it's still unclear whether the recent increase in deaths involving cocaine and synthetic opioids is mostly linked to unsuspecting cocaine users getting spiked drugs, or people intentionally using more than one substance to get high.

"We need to do interviews with dealers and users to get a better sense as to what's happening here," said Bryce Pardo, a drug policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Fentanyl has become ubiquitous in recent years, in part, because it's cheap to make and highly addictive. It is frequently mixed with or sold lieu of heroin, and is sometimes pressed into counterfeit pills sold as Xanax or other prescription drugs. But some question why it would be combined with cocaine, since the two drugs have opposite effects.

Pardo says some dealers might be getting fentanyl in their cocaine supply by accident.

"These are not pharmacists," he said. "They're doing this in their kitchen or they're doing it on a coffee table. They're mixing white powders with white powders."

Some drug users might also be changing their habits based on what's available.

"What we're seeing is two different types of people," said Dina Kharieh, co-director of programs at St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction in the Bronx. "We're seeing the usual cocaine users, and then we're seeing heroin users who probably don't have access to their usual supply, maybe due to COVID or maybe something else, and so they are seeking fentanyl-laced cocaine."

Kharieh said those looking for this particular concoction are still in the minority, though. In response to recent overdose data, her organization has started providing naloxone training to college students and others who might use cocaine.

"It's really important to give them the same education and information that we are doing here in syringe exchange programs with the usual heroin user," Kharieh said.

Copyright 2021 WNYC Radio