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Litchfield County: A spike in drug-related deaths

There were 14 drug overdoses in Litchfield County between April 28 and May 2, according to Maria Coutant Skinner, executive director of the McCall Center for Behavioral Health in Torrington.

In a phone interview Friday, May 7, Skinner said there were two unconfirmed fatalities among the 14 overdose cases. The final determination on cause of death will be made after toxicology results are available.

Since 2019, overdoses are reported to the state’s poison control agency and an overdose map keeps track of such cases. To trigger the highest of three alert levels requires three overdoses in a 24-hour period.

Skinner said 60% of the overdose cases were outside of Torrington, the largest city in the county.

Treatment — but not coercion

The Litchfield County Opiate Task Force held an emergency meeting (online) on Monday, May 3. 

State Rep. Maria Horn (D-64) attended the meeting. In a phone interview Sunday, May 9, Horn said there is a discussion underway in the state Legislature regarding a 24-to-48-hour custodial hold on individuals who have overdosed and been revived using Narcan, similar to the ability of law enforcement to detain someone who is drunk and an obvious threat to self or others.

One problem with this approach is that unlike individuals who are drunk, people who have been given Narcan are often lucid.

The other problem, Horn said, is that mental health professionals are leery of any sort of coercive approach. 

Horn said the idea is to allow law enforcement to detain people long enough to get them into some form of treatment, not as a punitive measure.

Asked if the recent increase in overdoses is attributable to fentanyl, a powerful opioid often added to heroin or other drugs, Skinner said that was almost certainly the case.

Imported from larger cities

So how do these drugs get to Litchfield County, and how are they distributed?

Bobby Lawlor is a drug intelligence officer for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, a federal program run out of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (which is a White House entity). Lawlor is a former New Haven police officer with extensive experience in narcotics investigations.

In a phone interview Saturday, May 8, Lawlor described the complex world of the illegal drug trade.

In general, street-level drug dealers in northwest Connecticut towns get their supplies from distributors in larger cities — Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; Danbury; Waterbury; Hartford; possibly as far afield as Springfield,Mass.

The main source for distributors in New England is New York City. The drugs then go to larger Connecticut cities, such as Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury.

The supply lines are difficult to track, Lawlor said. “They are based on relationships and connections — guys who were in prison together, family members.”

The drugs that come out of New York City flow from the southwest border of the United States, through Chicago and/or Atlanta, and then to New York.

The organizations that transport the drugs from the border, through Chicago and Atlanta, and on to New York “are very sophisticated,” Lawlor said.

The distribution from New York outwards is similarly well-organized. 

After that, however, the distribution becomes somewhat more haphazard and dependent on the “relationships and connections,” until the drugs get to the street or retail dealers — who are often users themselves, and selling drugs in order to pay for their own supplies.

Dilutions are now deadly

Fentanyl and its analogs have added a new and deadly wrinkle to an already complex situation.

Lawlor said that prior to 2013, the heroin scene in New Haven was “stable.”

“I hate to say it, but before 2013 you knew what you were getting.”

The heroin sold prior to 2013 in New Haven had the usual adulterants, such as Mannitol or lactose, added at any step in the distribution chain to stretch out the supply. These substances do not pose a threat to users.

“Once in a while there would be a ‘hot batch,’” Lawlor continued, meaning heroin that had not been diluted as much as usual and was thus more potent. This made it difficult for addicts to determine the right dose.

But post-2013, fentanyl and similar substances started to show up in what was sold as heroin.

Lawlor said fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, as well as other synthetic opioids are much stronger than a typical sample of heroin sold on the street.

Worse, these drugs have different “dosing strengths.”

So even an experienced addict will have trouble figuring out how much to use.

Plus a powerful veterinary sedative, Xylazine, is now being added to the already lethal mix.

“That’s a lot of what we see,” Lawlor said. “It’s very rare to find just one drug.”

For more information on harm reduction and treatment options, go to the Litchfield County Opiate Task Force website at www.loctf.org and the McCall Center for Behavioral Health at www.mccallcenterct.org.

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