Rachael Totire first noticed her daughter’s cellphone on the floor.
Its glow cast a soft light in her Fishers home still dark in the few moments before dawn, causing her to pause retrieving her laundry from the dryer. She had woken up at 6 a.m. for work, but everyone else should have been asleep.
Then, through the early-morning darkness, she saw her 24-year-old daughter — slumped over, legs crossed with no color in her lips.
Totire immediately began CPR but it had no effect. Her daughter aspirated during an overdose, which suppressed her body’s gag response.
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Medics later found a baggie holding 30 pills tucked in Hardin-Walsh’s clothes.
The pills looked identical to oxycodone, but unbeknownst to Hardin-Walsh, they were laced with carfentanil, the most potent type of opioid. The fatal dose detected in her body could fit on the tip of a pencil, a toxicology report showed.
Hardin-Walsh’s opioid death was one of more than 67,000 in the United States in 2018, a few years after fentanyl surged into the drug scene across the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The drug’s effects on Central Indiana was no different.
Fentanyl has become the leading cause of overdose deaths in Marion County, following years of deaths from the synthetic opioid rising.
The drug has taken over the illegal market in Indianapolis, causing the highest number of fentanyl-related overdoses the city has ever seen. The surge has caused officials to sound the alarm about the drug’s presence and attempt to contain its torrent into the region.
Hardin-Walsh for years struggled with addiction after a former boyfriend introduced her to drugs. She took “any kind of painkiller” she could get, Totire recalled, but her daughter didn’t want to die. She had three sons and showed promise of wanting help after numerous stints in rehab.
Recent cases of fatal overdoses from fentanyl, experts agree, most often aren’t intentional and in many cases the user isn’t even aware of the added risk.
Data show the majority of the deaths stem from the highly-lethal fentanyl being mixed with other street drugs, often cocaine and methamphetamine.
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Officials are particularly worried about another, harder-to-detect method of distributing the synthetic opioid. Fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills, made to look like prescription medication, are rapidly making their way into the hands of both addicts and unsuspecting users.
The pills are disguised as Xanax, Percocet or Adderall, but rolled with fentanyl by dealers looking to increase their profits by selling a stronger, more addictive drug with often fatal consequences.
“These drug traffickers and dealers, they don’t care about anybody,” said Michael Gannon, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Association office in Indianapolis.
Frequent drug users who typically do not dabble in opioids are buying the laced pills, then succumbing to the lethality of the synthetic dose secretly mixed with their purchase. Experts say they’re also seeing deaths among people who are not addicted to drugs but decide to take a pill thinking it’s less invasive than injecting the chemicals.
“They think it’s a pill and it’s not a big deal,” Gannon said. “The problem is, you’re taking prescription medication that have no quality care control of what that drug would be. And you’re risking your life every single time you take it.”
The pills are not only reaching the Indianapolis streets, but nearly every corner in the United States.
Authorities have seized nearly 9.5 million counterfeit pills across the country this year, more than 2019 and 2020 combined, according to federal officials.
About 40% of those pills contained a fatal dose of fentanyl, Gannon said.
The surge has become so severe, the DEA in late September issued a rare public safety alert warning Americans about the massive quantity of fake pills swarming the illegal drug market.
Over-the-counter drugs illegally sold in Indiana mostly used to flow from pharmacy robberies. The Hoosier State once led the country in the crime, logging more robberies than California, which has a population six times larger.
Many occurred in Marion County.
Robbers swiped the pharmacy’s pills, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, to sell on the streets.
Now, the game has changed, law enforcement officials told IndyStar.
Just as the state began to crack down on the pharmacy robberies five years ago, a newer, perhaps more insidious, illegal drug trend emerged.
The counterfeit pills, capable of being made by the thousands per day, began to flood the illicit market. The Marion County Coroner’s Office around the same time marked a notable increase in people dying from fentanyl.
Gannon said the majority of confiscated pills are made in clandestine labs in Mexico from chemicals supplied by China. But he also pointed to a recent example of the pills being churned out locally.
Federal agents in December charged 30 people in an apparent fentanyl trafficking ring led out of Indianapolis. Investigators seized over 700 grams of fentanyl and a pill press, which Gannon said can produce 5,000 pills a day. The accused face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the drug distribution charge. Some of the defendants also face robbery charges.
The number of deaths from fentanyl has increased fivefold since the Marion County Coroner’s Office first noticed an uptick years ago. The office sounded the alarm after 86 people died from the synthetic opioid in 2016.
Data show the number of deaths from fentanyl in Marion County has skyrocketed to over 500 annually, accounting for nearly 80% of overdose deaths. In 2020, the coroner’s office reported 507 people died from fentanyl.
The county surpassed those numbers this year. The DEA reported 515 people had died so far this year from fentanyl as of early December, with weeks remaining in 2021.
“It’s a serious problem,” Gannon said.
While federal and local data paint a dire picture of the drug’s effects in Marion County, officials said no area is immune from the deluge of fake pills.
Fishers police in October seized more than 25,000 pills believed to contain fentanyl in one drug bust. Officials said counterfeit pills led to the deaths of three people in the city this summer. The ages of the deceased were 18 and 19, police told IndyStar.
The deaths prompted the department to alert the community about the presence of the pills.
“Because of the dangerous aspect of the pills, that’s what’s making it so serious,” said Sgt. Tom Weger of the Fishers Police Department.
The DEA and police are warning the public to only take medication prescribed by a medical professional or issued by a licensed pharmacist. They also urged parents to be aware of their kids’ social media behavior, as the pills can be, and have been, purchased on apps like Snapchat or Instagram.
Totire said parents should be more in tune with their kids even after they become adults.
“It’s deeper than just popping a pill,” she said. “We need to find the underlying reason why they are self-medicating.”
Her only solace since her daughter’s death is that the 30 pills medics found didn’t make it to the street.
“That’s why I’m at peace because God took mine and saved 30 other people,” she said. “It takes a lot of strength to think that way.”
She emphasized the surge in fentanyl deaths is not just driven by pills — a point she recently learned through a close friend’s death.
He died of an overdose after taking cocaine mixed with fentanyl.
If you or a loved one are struggling with drug use and addiction, call the Indiana Addiction Hotline at 1-800-662-4357 or find local resources.
Contact Sarah Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-503-7514.
The rise of fentanyl: How the synthetic opioid has taken over the Indianapolis drug scene – The Indianapolis Star
Rachael Totire first noticed her daughter’s cellphone on the floor.