A young father of three children has become the first publicly known victim in an alarming wave of Sacramento County overdoses involving the powerful painkiller fentanyl.
Family members of Jerome Butler, 28, said doctors removed him from life support systems on Wednesday afternoon, a few days after he took a pill that is believed to have been laced with fentanyl. Similar overdoses have killed six other people and sent 21 more to area hospitals.
Natasha Butler said her son’s friends told the family he took one tablet of what he believed was the narcotic Norco and was found unresponsive Saturday afternoon. Jerome Butler graduated from William Daylor High School and was taking classes to work as a security guard. He leaves behind children ages 1, 4 and 10.
“My son received the pill from someone, and that someone received the pill from someone else,” Natasha Butler said Wednesday. “So we have to find out where it came from. For me, I want to find out where it came from because this is my son, my only son that I lost. And this is a real public safety issue. We have lost so many of our kids behind this pill. All the parents that (have) lost their kids behind this, we have to stand together. We have to get it stopped.”
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The family has created a "Fighting for Jerome" page on GoFundMe.com to raise funds to support his children. As of Thursday morning, the site had collected $205 in donations.
Public health officials have sounded the alarm about the dangers of purchasing street drugs and the overwhelming risks of ingesting illicitly manufactured fentanyl, which is at the center of a national epidemic. The drugs are used in hospitals and dispensed by prescription to treat severe pain, but in recent years have moved to the streets.
Federal agents are investigating how fentanyl found its way to Butler and others in the Sacramento area who suffered overdoses starting last week.
“Fentanyl is nasty, nasty stuff, and we’re seeing it more and more all over the country,” said Rusty Payne, spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C.
Fentanyl first surfaced as a major player in the illicit drug trade in 2006, when a rash of people overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl in Midwestern cities including Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City.
“It was really quick, and it was big,” said Payne. Hundreds of people died before federal agents traced the origins of the lethal drugs to a single lab in Mexico and shut it down.
Today, Mexican drug-trafficking networks typically purchase fentanyl in powder form from China, then “cut” or mix it with other drugs, including heroin and less-powerful prescription painkillers. Street drugs containing fentanyl are mainly distributed in the United States through gangs, Payne said.
“You have a huge opiate addiction problem here in the United States,” he said. “The Mexican traffickers target areas where there are a significant number of addicts, and have a business relationships with the local street gangs.”
The National Forensic Laboratory Information System recorded 5,217 seizures of fentanyl by law enforcement in 2014, up from 1,004 in 2013. From January to September 2015, the system logged 8,511 fentanyl seizure reports.
“It’s exploding,” said Payne.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January reported “an epidemic” of drug overdose deaths driven by opiates. They reported a 200 percent jump in the rate of fatal overdoses involving opiates.
Addicts in Sacramento and elsewhere who seek a powerful high may think they’re purchasing pure heroin or oxycontin on the streets, said Payne, and not be aware that the drugs have been mixed with fentanyl. Fentanyl adds a dangerous kick that can quickly overwhelm the respiratory system and kill.
“Your body can’t take more than a touch of fentanyl before it shuts down,” said Payne. The drug is as much as 50 times stronger than heroin, studies have shown.
Because fentanyl can easily be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, paramedics and other first responders are at risk of ingesting it when treating someone who has overdosed, he said.
“We’re getting to the point that we will have to start treating fentanyl like methamphetamine, where first responders have to wear hazmat gear,” Payne said.
Fentanyl’s potency has made it a lucrative drug to manufacture illicitly and sell on the streets. “It’s replacing heroin, because you just need a speck of it. Traffickers can really stretch the product and make millions of dollars.”
One kilogram of fentanyl can be cut and diluted to make 10 to 20 kilograms of street drugs, he said.