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Fentanyl cuts bitter swath through Milwaukee

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MILWAUKEE — Glenda O. Hampton doesn’t have to look far to witness the devastation of the fentanyl epidemic in her neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee.

She found men lying on the sidewalk, barely conscious, their legs splayed in the street as cars sped by. She can count at least three people in the past few months who have sought treatment at the rehab center she runs, then relapsed and died from fentanyl use.

“I saw a lot of terrible drugs,” said Ms Hampton, 68, a small figure sitting behind her crowded desk, as a group counseling session was underway in the hallway. “It’s the worst.”

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has swept the United States in recent years, the latest wave in a drug crisis that began with opioid painkillers and was followed by heroin. Fentanyl is a surprisingly potent drug, 100 times more potent than morphine, which has been linked to the deaths of more than 70,000 Americans in 2021. They included first-time users who ingested more fentanyl than their bodies could handle. could handle it, unsuspecting students taking party drugs. like cocaine mixed with fentanyl and longtime addicts looking for cheap and plentiful highs.

In cities like Milwaukee, fentanyl is increasingly a crisis in heavily black and Latino neighborhoods. It is spreading through communities already under the weight of poverty, disinvestment and violent crime, and now struggling to control a drug whose reach is growing every year.

A federal report released in July said drug overdose deaths in the United States – which are largely due to fentanyl – are hitting people of color the hardest, with rates among young black people during the coronavirus pandemic rising. most strongly. Data from Milwaukee County showed that between 2020 and 2021, fatal overdoses increased 6% among whites, but 55% among blacks.

In 2021, more than 500 drug deaths in Milwaukee County were linked to fentanyl, officials said, and the death toll this year is expected to be even higher.

“Unfortunately, this outbreak is hitting communities of color very hard,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said in an interview. “The number of fentanyl-related deaths continued to rise, as did the share of people of color who succumbed to fentanyl-related deaths.”

Mayor Johnson, from the predominantly black north side of Milwaukee, has faced a cascade of crises since becoming mayor in 2021. The city’s budget is stretched, with rising retirement costs leading officials to consider cuts to libraries, city police forces and fire departments. departments. The number of homicides in Milwaukee, a city of 577,000, nearly doubled from 2019 to 2021.

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

“It’s obviously open to see,” said Rafael Mercado, a former drug dealer who now volunteers as a community organizer. Mr. Mercado walks through parks cleaning up drug paraphernalia, but the sales of fentanyl and other illegal substances are in plain sight, near fast food restaurants, in parking lots and around corners. streets.

“The demand is too high,” Mercado said. “You are waging the war on drugs, but without results.”

Health officials, social workers and former users have attributed Milwaukee’s escalating fentanyl crisis, in part, to the pandemic, when so many people were isolated and unable to work. From 2019 to 2020, overdose deaths nationwide increased by 30%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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

“It’s just more powerful than anything I’ve ever used,” he said. “My ear was pounding so much after smoking that stuff. It hurt like someone had put a nail in my ear.

Mr Hill said he heard friends say that the use of fentanyl was spreading rapidly, particularly because it is inexpensive, easy to obtain and so often mixed with other drugs. He’s been recovering since February, he said, but maintaining his sobriety is a struggle.

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

Drug dealers who sell fentanyl routinely cut it into other substances like cocaine or marijuana, but don’t know how much fentanyl ends up in the end product. The Drug Enforcement Administration said in November that the lethality of fake fentanyl-containing pills was increasing and that six of ten pills analyzed by the agency this year contained a potentially fatal dose of fentanyl. “This remains the deadliest threat facing the United States,” the agency said in a statement.

Desilynn Smith, a counselor at the Gateway to Change rehab center, sensed the fentanyl crisis drawing closer.

“In my community, it’s everywhere,” she said. “Every day I wake up and hear about four or five overdoses. Every three or four days, I get a call from someone saying, ‘Hey, do you remember so and so? 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 with grief and regret.

She has channeled her energies into her work at Gateway to Change, where she is a clinical director and counsels people struggling with addiction.

Earlier this month, in a room with the 12 Steps of Narcotics Anonymous printed on the walls, Ms Smith stood in front of a group who placed their mobile phones in a communal box, sat on chairs in wood and described their internal battles.

I dreamed about my addictions, said a man, his voice muffled behind a mask. A woman was fiddling with a bracelet on her wrist and talking about her strong desires. If I wasn’t here, she said, I’d be stoned right now.

“You have to recover for yourself,” Ms. Smith told him.

A few miles away, at the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, employees are overwhelmed by the number of overdose deaths they’ve handled this year. They still have to catch up on a backlog of cases.

Sara Schreiber, the bureau’s technical forensic director, said fentanyl-related deaths had “far exceeded” heroin-related deaths and the number of drug-related deaths in the city had skyrocketed due to of fentanyl consumption.

“It’s so easy to synthesize, it’s so easy to get,” she said. “You don’t have to grow a plant to get it like you need from heroin.

When drug-related deaths are reported in Milwaukee, she said, those who have succumbed typically end up at home, sometimes with a needle in their arm or a tourniquet in place — a reflection of the power of rapid action of the drug.

Local and state officials say they understand the problem and are fighting it with all the tools at their disposal, including increased distribution 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 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,” she said. “There’s a shame involved.”

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

Mr. Solis’ son died from a pill containing fentanyl, a death which Mr. Solis described as poisoning, as he did not believe Bubba knew of what he was ingesting. This ignorance is common, Mr Solis said, and he regularly tells parents to be aware that the pills can be deadly.

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

Mr. Solis regularly sees signs of the fentanyl epidemic, whether it’s selling drugs in the open air or a stranger overdosing in public. At a Walgreens, he saw someone pass out in the restroom, and when he informed an employee, he was told it happened all the time.

At least once a week, Mr. Solis visits St. Adalbert Cemetery, where his son’s body rests in a crypt covered in pink granite. On a recent afternoon there, he recounted Bubba’s life and his 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 people were in the next room. As part of his outreach work, Mr Solis tells people that if they hear a drug addict snoring loudly, like Bubba was that night, they could administer naloxone and save a life.

“I relive it every day,” he said.

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nytimes

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