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Fighting Fentanyl: An in-depth look at the opioid crisis in Connecticut

This deadly drug is getting more prevalent and potent.

CONNECTICUT, USA — Three weeks ago, the fatal fentanyl overdose of a 13-year-old Hartford student shocked the state. Since then, investigators have been looking into how someone so young got their hands on the deadly drug. The tragedy has opened the eyes of many who are now seeing the severity of the opioid crisis in Connecticut.

"There's no geographic boundary, and nor is there an age boundary," said David Lanzoni, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) New England Division. "It's abundantly available and it's very, very dangerous,"  

Lanzoni has worked for the DEA for 22 years. He's seen how fentanyl has taken over Connecticut. 

"We still do see heroin but the prevalent drug of choice is synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl," Lanzoni said. "Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is upwards of 50 times more potent than that of heroin – traditional heroin."

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Fentanyl is so deadly that only two milligrams could kill someone.

The main problem law enforcement is seeing, however, is that fentanyl is getting stronger, or more potent, and more unrecognizable. Lanzoni said it's being sold on the streets, often masked as other drugs. And it's all being produced in another country. 

"Oftentimes found in places like China, ultimately shipped to places like Mexico, where in turn they are transformed into fentanyl in these clandestine laboratories," Lanzoni explained. "And some are pressed into counterfeit fentanyl pills or pressed into pills like Adderall, or maybe like a Xanax or Percocet, and they're made to look as if they were coming from a pharmaceutical company. But, they're fake, they're counterfeit and they're being produced unregulated. So you don't know what the dosage level is in any of those. The drug dealers and the cartels are trying to trick the end-user."

RELATED: What parents need to know about fentanyl, and its even stronger cousin carfentanil

Dealers are also using other ways to connect with the consumer. Drug deals are now happening on social media and other e-commerce platforms.

"So if you have accessibility to a smartphone or to a computer, and you can get to the web, it can now be delivered to you," Lanzoni said. 

Credit: U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
2 milligrams of fentanyl sit atop a sharpened pencil tip. The image highlights just how little is needed to provide severe complications, even death, to those who come into contact with the synthetic opioid.

When it's sold on the streets, fentanyl can come in many different forms, whether it's powder or pills. Both are equally as addictive and deadly.

"I think that's the biggest thing we learned from this incident is we talk about 'fentanyl, fentanyl, fentanyl,' but what we got back from the people is like, 'Well we don't know what that looks like. What is fentanyl?'" said Sgt. Chris Mastroianni, a supervisor with the Hartford Police Department, Intelligence Division. "So that's been the biggest piece for us – is just trying to get some education out there on what does this stuff look like, because the average person doesn't know."

Since the overdose of the Hartford student at school, Mastroianni has been hosting information sessions with students, staff, and parents. His main focus is helping them identify what fentanyl is so they can look out for it and stay safe.

RELATED: Para-fluorofentanyl, metonitazene now adding to US overdose crisis

"At the street level, you're going to see them in these small white, wax sleeves," Mastroianni explained as he flipped through photos of how the drugs are sold on the streets. "They're generally bundled in bundles of ten, using these little rubber bands. You can see there's no consistency in the color – there are green bags, white bags... sometimes there are stamped logos on the bags which we do use to trace stuff, especially the stuff that's creating overdoses."

In Hartford alone, Mastroianni said they seized about 50,000 bags of fentanyl in 2021. 

Police said the Hartford student who died had 40 bags of fentanyl with him at school. Investigators later found 100 more bags of the drug at the teen's home. The potency of those drugs stood at 60%, according to officials.

"A typical bag, glassine bag, on the street – you could suggest some are coming in at around one, two, maybe three, four percent [potency]. You know, you get a kilogram inwards and upwards of maybe 12% – maybe. But, of late, those purity levels have been rising " Lanzoni explained. "If you encounter fentanyl in and of itself, and it's at a 60% purity, you could be a life-long addict – a hard-core 20, 30 bag-a-day user – and you will not survive."

"Fentanyl is a huge problem right now for Connecticut and for other areas of the nation," said Nancy Navaretta, Interim Commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. "Every year, we have seen an increase of the percentage of deaths that involve fentanyl," 

Since 2015, about 5,293 people have died from fentanyl overdoses in Connecticut, according to the CT Department of Public Health. Mastroianni said they have not seen an overwhelming number of teens using opioids, but they know they're out there.

Credit: FOX61

RELATED: Person of interest identified in connection to Hartford student's deadly fentanyl overdose investigation

Nobody knows that better than Brittany Richards, a Connecticut native who now spends her time mentoring young teens and adults who are struggling with addiction.

"They're using anything from marijuana to heroin. And nowadays, it's not even heroin anymore, it's fentanyl," said Richards, who battled her addiction for 10 years. "I was never told in school about addiction – about the consequences of addiction. I didn't know you could get addicted to pain medication, so it kind of progressed from there."

It all started after Richards went through surgery when she was 23 years old. Eventually, she got addicted to heroin and later started using fentanyl.

"Part of the reason I started was I was going through some depression. Some postpartum depression at the time – you know I didn't really know what was going on and I was struggling. And this is something that made me feel better. And I didn't think it was something that was going to cause further damage down the road," Richards said.

Until one day, it almost killed her.

"I stopped because I overdosed. I overdosed on fentanyl. Luckily, my friend brought me back. And I just couldn't die that way. Not for my daughter, I couldn't do that," Richards said.

Richards was able to find resources to help save her. But she believes there needs to be more help and awareness efforts for young people in Connecticut. She hopes other parents can see this and start advocating for change.

"Start to push these things, you know? Start to say, 'We should have this,'" Richards said. "I think a lot of the reason that officials don't want to do that is because they want the people in the towns to believe that it's not happening, and it is. We're losing our kids."

The state does have more than 130 contracted providers, on top of state-operated facilities. There is funding in the state budget for withdrawal management services, rehab programs, and other outpatient services.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has opened a 24/7 hotline. Call during all hours of the day, 365 days a year. The number is 1-800-563-4086. 

Julia LeBlanc is a reporter at FOX61 News. She can be reached at jleblanc@fox61.com Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  


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