Death, Theft and TikTok: The Fentanyl Crisis is Hitting Nebraska Too

Oct. 1, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

The Drug Enforcement Agency Begins it, "One Pill can Kill Campaign" (Photo Courtesy of the DEA)

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The opioid crisis has a name: fentanyl. As Nebraska Public Media News reports, the drug is quickly becoming a major public health problem.

Turn to any news station and sooner or later, you’re going to hear a story about fentanyl. It’s a cheap but potent man-made opioid that can be 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. 

Last summer, the city of Lincoln was shaken by a series of overdoses linked to cocaine laced with fentanyl, 35 over the course of less than a month, according to the Lincoln Police Department. Of those, nine victims died. A pregnant survivor lost her baby. Captain Ryan Dale works with LPD’s Narcotics Unit and said he’s never seen anything quite like it. 

“Several years ago, there was a large number of K2 overdoses when there was some bad K2 in town,” said Dale, “but they weren't as severe and they weren't causing deaths like this.” 

Dale said some of the drugs that caused those overdoses have now been traced back to the Nebraska State Patrol’s evidence locker and an employee has been arrested for allegedly stealing the drugs and giving them to her boyfriend to sell on the street. 

The overdoses follow a disturbing national trend of illicit drugs infused with lethal doses of fentanyl making their way into communities. 

Dale said that while overdoses have subsided in recent weeks, law enforcement must remain vigilant and the fight is far from over. 

“These things go in waves,” said Dale, "Unfortunately, there's always going to be another round, and the community at large needs to always, always keep charging forward, trying to address this issue." 

It’s important to note that fentanyl itself isn’t the villain of the story. Dr. Ken Zoucha is Addiction Medicine Division-Director at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and says fentanyl has many practical, and legitimate uses in the medical world as a painkiller. 

“There's a patch that can go on the skin that can deliver an amount of fentanyl over time. There's an oral form of the medicine as well,” says Zoucha, “For kids, for a while, they developed kind of these lollipops actually, that worked amazingly well.” 

Kenneth Zoucha, MD
Dr. Kenneth Zoucha (Photo Courtesy of the University of Nebraska Medical Center)

But, because it's easy to make and extremely potent, Zoucha said illicit drug makers are infusing fentanyl with other drugs. But illicit drug-making can be messy. If a batch of fentanyl-laced drugs contains too large of a dose, too much of the drug can attach to the body's breathing receptors and the person can stop breathing and die.

“And when that happens over a period of time, and when the (pause in) breathing is long enough, or when we stop breathing long enough, then that's when people die,” said Zoucha. “Without oxygen (and an increase in ) carbon dioxide, our body shuts down.” 

Zoucha said the isolating nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue. 

Steve Bell is the Drug Enforcement Administration's Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the organization's Omaha office. He said the crisis is further complicated by innovative ways people have found to buy illicit drugs. He said now, more than ever people are buying drugs via online platforms like Facebook, Tik Tok, and Instagram, where he said concerns about user privacy often trump law enforcement priorities 

“But how many deaths have to occur before people start getting it?” said Bell, “The ‘dark web’ is still alive and well.” 

Bell said that, with the anonymity of the internet, not only can those looking for cheap sources of Adderall, Oxycontin, Xanax, and other opioids easily find a seller, but they can also get the drugs delivered directly to their front door. 

“The drug trafficking organizations are extremely resilient, they have nothing but time and money to change the way they do business, to circumvent law enforcement, and get their product to market,” said Bell. 

DEA Assistant Special Agent In Charge Steve Bell (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

He said most fentanyl-laced drugs are produced in Mexico and pushed through the U-S’s southern border. He adds Nebraska is particularly vulnerable to drug trafficking due to the I-80 and I-29 interstate corridors. 

“Getting product from point A to point B? Absolutely,” said Bell. “A lot of it is driven across and yes, it is a major corridor for eastern-west because the drugs will come up and then go east. Some will stop off here. A lot will still continue eastbound.” 

Bell said this will not be a situation law enforcement can arrest itself out of. Instead, he said a multi-tiered approach of law enforcement, treatment, and education will be the only ways to eliminate the demand for drugs containing fentanyl. As things stand, the situation looks bleak. 

“In the United States alone, we had last year over 90,000 people die from overdoses. Each year, it keeps going up, it's not slowing down," said Bell. “Nationwide, we had nine and a half million pills seized. That's more than the last two years combined.” 

In a symbol of the scope of the crisis, this month the DEA published its first public safety announcement in six years and has started the “One Pill Can Kill,” campaign. 

Captain Ryan Dale in Lincoln agrees with the multi-pronged approach. 

“It's going to take the police department, fire Department, health department, community, nonprofit resources, friends and families of those that are struggling with addiction,” said Dale, “Everyone has a role to play. And we all need to work together.” 

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the name and title of DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Steve Bell and more accurately reflect the cause of death in fentanyl overdoses. We've also corrected comments from Dr. Zoucha on the how the drug affects the body to clarify that too much of the medicine can affect the body's breathing receptors and cause death, not the euphoria associated with fentanyl. In addition, we've clarified additional technical descriptions of how the drug affects the body and breathing.