Fentanyl cuts a bitter swath through Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Glenda O. Hampton didn’t have to look far to see the devastation of the fentanyl epidemic in his neighborhood on Milwaukee’s north side.

She saw men lying on the curb, unconscious, legs pounding the street as cars sped by. She can count at least three people who have relapsed and died after using fentanyl at the storefront rehab center she runs in recent months.

“I’ve seen a lot of horrible drugs,” said Ms. Hampton, 68, a diminutive figure sitting behind her crowded desk as a group counseling session got underway in the hall. “It’s the worst.”

The synthetic opioid fentanyl has spread across the U.S. in recent years, the latest wave of a drug crisis that began with opioid painkillers and was followed by heroin. Fentanyl is a shockingly powerful drug that is 100 times more potent than morphine. More than 70,000 Americans died In the year 2021. First-time users who have taken more fentanyl than their bodies can handle, unsuspecting college students taking party drugs like fentanyl-laced cocaine, and chronic addicts looking for the cheapest and most expensive.

In cities like Milwaukee, fentanyl is increasingly a crisis in black and Latino neighborhoods. It’s spreading into communities already struggling with poverty, disinvestment and violent crime, and struggling to control the growing number of drugs each year.

A federal report Published in July Drug overdose deaths in the United States — which are often fueled by fentanyl — hit people of color the hardest, with rates rising steeply among young black people during the coronavirus pandemic. Data from Milwaukee County showed a 6 percent increase from 2020 to 2021 among whites, but a 55 percent increase among blacks.

By 2021, more than 500 drug-related deaths in Milwaukee County could involve fentanyl, officials say. saidAnd this year’s death toll is expected to be even higher.

“Unfortunately, this epidemic is hitting communities of color very hard,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said in an interview. “The number of fentanyl-related deaths continues to rise, and so does the share of people of color who suffer fentanyl-related deaths.”

Mayor Johnson, a native of Milwaukee’s heavily black North Side, has faced a litany of crises since becoming mayor in 2021. The city budget also guides officials through rising pension costs. consider Cuts to libraries, the city’s police force and fire departments. The number of homicides in Milwaukee, a city of 577,000, nearly doubled from 2019 to 2021.

And the pain from the fentanyl epidemic is visible on the streets.

“It’s a stark eye-opener,” said Rafael Mercado, a former drug trafficker who now volunteers as a community organizer. Mr. Mercado walks around the parks to clean up drug paraphernalia, although the sale of fentanyl and other illegal substances takes place near fast-food restaurants, in parking lots and on street corners.

“The demand is very high,” Mr. Mercado said. “You’re fighting the drug war, but there’s no end in sight.”

Health officials, social workers and former users attribute the acceleration of Milwaukee’s fentanyl crisis, in part, to the epidemic, when many were isolated and unable to work. From 2019 to 2020, overdose deaths increased 30 percent nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rodney Hill, a 62-year-old Milwaukee resident, said he encountered fentanyl for the first time in 2021 while smoking what he thought was cocaine.

“It’s more powerful than anything I’ve ever used,” he said. “After smoking that stuff my ear throbbed a lot. It hurt like someone put a nail in my ear.

Mr. said he had heard from friends that fentanyl use was on the rise. Hill said, especially since it’s cheap, readily available and often mixed with other drugs. He has been in recovery since February, but maintaining his sobriety is a struggle.

“I had to pray and have a strong will to not use,” he said. “Fentanyl kills people. It’s evil.”

Drug dealers who sell fentanyl usually cut it into other substances, such as cocaine or marijuana, but have little idea of ​​how much fentanyl ends up in the final product. The Drug Enforcement Administration said in November that fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl were increasing their deaths, and that six out of 10 pills analyzed by the agency this year contained dangerous levels of fentanyl. “This remains the deadliest drug threat facing the United States,” the agency said Report.

Desilynn Smith, a counselor at the drug rehabilitation center Gateway to Change, felt the fentanyl crisis was approaching.

“In my community, it’s everywhere,” he said. “Every day, I wake up and I hear about four or five overdoses. Every three or four days, I get a call from someone saying, ‘Hey, do you remember that? He died from fentanyl.’

Last year, fentanyl devastated Ms. Smith’s family when her husband, Hamid Abd-al-Jabbar, died of an overdose, leaving Ms. Smith in mourning and grief.

She has devoted her energies to Gateway to Change, where she serves as medical director and counsels people struggling with addiction.

Earlier this month, in a room with the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous printed on the wall, Ms. Smith stood before a group, sitting on wooden chairs with their cellphones in a communal box, to describe their internal struggles.

I dream about my addiction, said one man, his voice muffled behind a mask. A woman tied a bracelet on her wrist and talked about her desires, the strongest ones. She said if I wasn’t here, I would be high by now.

“You have to redeem yourself,” Mrs. Smith told her.

A few miles away, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office is overwhelmed by the number of overdose deaths they’ve processed this year. They have not caught the pending cases yet.

Sarah Schreiber, the office’s forensic technology director, said fentanyl-related deaths “far outnumber” those related to heroin, adding that the number of drug-related deaths in the city due to fentanyl use has risen.

“It’s very easy to integrate, it’s very easy to get,” he said. “You don’t need to grow a plant to get what you need with heroin.

When drug-related deaths are reported in Milwaukee, the dead are usually found at home, sometimes with a needle or tourniquet in hand — a reflection of the drug’s fast-acting potency, he said.

Local and state officials say they understand the problem and are fighting it with tools at their disposal, including increased supplies of naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, and test strips that detect the presence of fentanyl.

But officials also face reluctance from some communities where drug addiction is common, said Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, who represents Milwaukee in the state Legislature.

“It’s a taboo subject. People don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “There’s a shame in it.”

Milwaukee resident Isaac Solis lost his 25-year-old son Bubba to fentanyl, sending him into a deep well of grief. When he emerged, Mr. Solis became an activist in the city, warning about the dangers of drugs.

Mr. Solis’ son died of a pill containing fentanyl, a death Mr. Solis called it poison because he didn’t believe Bubba knew what he was consuming. That ignorance is common, Mr. Solis said, and she routinely tells parents to be aware that the pills are dangerous.

People in some parts of the city don’t think pills are a problem, he said. “It was considered a suburban thing,” he added, “where kids would get together and steal drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets.”

Mr. Solis regularly sees signs of a fentanyl epidemic, whether it’s an open street sale or a stranger overdosing in public. At a Walgreens, he saw someone passed out in the restroom, and when he reported it to an employee, he was told it happened all the time.

At least once a week, Mr. Solis goes to St. Adalbert Cemetery, where her son’s body lies in a crypt covered with pink granite. On a recent afternoon there, he recounted Bubba’s life and its tragic end.

His death could have been prevented if more people knew about the dangers of fentanyl, Mr. Solis said – it happened in a house where there were people in the next room. As part of his mission to spread awareness, Mr. Solis tells people that if they hear a drug user snoring excessively, like Bubba did that night, they can administer naloxone and save a life.

“I relive it every day,” he said.

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