A series of eight overdoses, six of which proved fatal, last week have been connected to a batch of fentanyl-laced cocaine on the North Fork and Shelter Island, authorities said.
Over eight days, between August 5 and 13, seven of the overdoses, five of them fatal, were on the North Fork, while the eighth overdose and sixth death occurred on Shelter Island. No arrests have been made, but Southold Town and Shelter Island Town police departments, along with the Suffolk County DA’s office are investigating and asking the public to be on alert.
“We collectively urge that anyone who has purchased cocaine, or other narcotics, recently on the North Fork or Shelter Island, or know of a family member or friend that has purchased, safely dispose of these potentially lethal products,” Southold Town PD Chief Martin Flatley said in a statement, suggesting the dangerously adulterated drugs could still be circulating in the region.
The already unacceptably high number of fatal overdoses in the United States surged nearly 30% nationwide to a record 93,331 deaths in 2020, according to a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. The rise is due in large part to the growing prevalence of fentanyl and the struggle from COVID-19 lockdowns, isolation, lost jobs and an overall state of fear and unrest. Locally, on Long Island, Suffolk County has a higher rate of overdoses than Nassau — 304 in the former versus 216 in the latter, with both counties seeing an increase over 2019, according to the latest New York State Department of Health data.
“Preliminary data has indicated that Suffolk County is experiencing an uptick in overdoses during the pandemic, which is obviously very concerning,” Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini has said. “Whenever there is a fatal overdose, we treat that investigation similarly to a homicide; we take immediate steps to try to determine who sold the drugs to that victim. I’ve said many times before that we’re not going to arrest ourselves out of the drug epidemic, but law enforcement will continue to be vigilant and to arrest and prosecute drug dealers who are peddling this poison in our communities.”
Among the recent local victims was Swainson Brown, a 40-year-old chef at Shelter Island’s Pridwin Hotel who was found dead at his home on the night of August 13. Brown was one of four people to die on Friday, including one in Greenport, another in East Marion and a third in Southold. Social media chatter suggests a number of the victims worked in the local restaurant industry.
Several of the fatalities were in the Village of Greenport, where officials are offering Narcan — an overdose antidote drug — at village hall for anyone who requests them, once available.
“If you suspect that you, a friend or a loved one are in possession of dangerously laced drugs, please do not take them,” the village said. A somber candlelight vigil was held for the victims in Greenport’s Mitchell Park on Sunday evening.
The Town of Southold is also offering Narcan training classes online and in-person to help equip the public with the skills to revive an overdose victim before first responders arrive. Classes run daily through August 20, with more details available at southoldtownny.gov.
A powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl is 30–50 times more potent than heroin and 50–100 times stronger than morphine. It is also cheaper and easier to obtain than heroin, which has led dealers to cut their product with the substance, but the practice has resulted in an increasing number of deadly overdoses between 2013 and today. Typically, however, fentanyl is found in heroin, which is in the same class of drug and offers a similar “high” for users.
Discovering the substance in cocaine, which produces an almost opposite effect, is more rare, even strange, but not unprecedented. And the problem is getting worse.
The New York Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported earlier this year that it seized 59% more fentanyl last year over 2019 in New York.
“When drug traffickers introduced fentanyl to the illicit drug market, they created a monster,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan. “Fentanyl has been a public health nuisance for several years and has taken too many lives too often. We have seen fentanyl mixed with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and even marijuana.”
Though fentanyl-laced heroin claims many lives, it would be tolerated much better by a heroin user, who would have built a resistance to opioids. Cocaine users, on the other hand, would not have a tolerance for opioids and are at far greater risk of overdose from even a small amount of fentanyl.
According to a 2018 New York City Health Department report, fentanyl was detected in 37 percent of all of NYC’s cocaine-involved overdose deaths that did not also involve heroin in 2016, and that number was up 11% from the previous year. It’s widely understood that, in the vast majority of cases, a cocaine user would be unknowingly ingesting fentanyl, as it doesn’t offer the feeling they seek. So why would dealers add it to this very different drug?
It would be highly unlikely for a dealer to purposely cut cocaine with fentanyl, which could very easily kill their customers. Instead, it might come down to irresponsible practices at the highest level of the manufacturing and distribution chain. Imagine, for example, a cartel is preparing, packaging and selling cocaine and heroin, separately, and using the same table and tools for both. If the heroin, which is purposely cut with fentanyl, is prepared first, and the cocaine preparation follows on the very same surface, using the very same tools, it would be possible, even likely, that heroin and fentanyl could end up contaminating that cocaine.
Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal, especially for users without a tolerance for opioids, creating a recipe for disaster.
– with additional reporting by Timothy Bolger
The Southold Town Police Department is asking anyone who may have come in contact with, or possesses, the tainted cocaine to report it by calling 631-765-2600 and getting connected with the Detective Division. Southold PD will accept and dispose of all drugs, no questions asked, via a narcotics bin at their headquarters, located at 41405 Route NY-25 in Peconic.
Are you struggling with addiction? The Suffolk County Department of Health Services and Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD) operate a 24/7 Substance Abuse Hotline that connects callers to treatment services. LICADD works with the Suffolk County Communities of Solution (COS) provider network to ensure timely access to quality substance abuse care. Call 631-979-1700