The fentanyl-laced cocaine that killed an LA comedian is showing up everywhere - here's why it's so deadly and how to avoid it

The fentanyl-laced cocaine that killed an LA comedian is showing up everywhere - here's why it's so deadly and how to avoid it
·3 min read
Cocaine
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  • Three people died in Los Angeles after taking cocaine laced with fentanyl.

  • Fentanyl is a dangerously potent synthetic opioid, and it's driving an increase in overdoses across the US.

  • People who use hard drugs should keep test strips and naloxone on hand to reduce the risk of ODing.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Comedian Fuquan Johnson died in Los Angeles on Saturday, along with two other people, after reportedly overdosing on fentanyl-laced cocaine. Another comedian, Kate Quigley, was hospitalized.

Similar overdoses have been reported from Long Island, New York, to Lincoln, Nebraska. In 2020, overdose deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl reached a record high in the US.

Fentanyl is often mixed with other narcotic drugs, such as heroin, to make them more potent, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

But increasingly officials are warning that fentanyl is cropping up in drugs such as cocaine, causing accidental overdoses in people who were not aware.

In New York City, police estimate that 8%, or nearly one in every 10 bags of cocaine sold on the street, contain fentanyl, VICE reported.

Here's what you need to know about fentanyl.

Fentanyl may be especially deadly to people who haven't tried opioids

Even a small amount of fentanyl can be dangerous for someone who is "opioid-naive," New York City epidemiologist Michelle Nolan told Gothamist.

Fentanyl is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the DEA. The high potency poses a greater overdose risk for people who don't regularly use opioids and have not built up a tolerance.

Cocaine users also may not be as prepared for a potential overdose compared to regular opioid users. People who use heroin may have access to naloxone, an overdose reversal medication, at harm-reduction centers.

But someone who uses cocaine or other drugs recreationally likely wouldn't come into contact with those resources.

People who use any hard drugs should keep test strips and naloxone on hand

Fentanyl test strips can show if a substance contains fentanyl in just a few minutes with about 97% sensitivity.

The over-the-counter strips are available at harm-reduction sites such as syringe exchanges, as well as online and in some corner stores, according to the Health Affairs journal blog.

The strips work like many other testing kits: mix the drug with a buffer solution or water until it dissolves, then place the paper strip in the solution. The strip will change color or show a line if the liquid tests positive for fentanyl.

Anyone who is a regular user of hard drugs - not just heroin or opioids - should keep naloxone on hand in case of emergency. Also known as Narcan, the anti-overdose drug is available without a prescription at most major US pharmacies, or online from Naloxone Exchange.

A negative test strip is not an 'all clear'

Testing drugs for fentanyl can provide some peace of mind, but it does not guarantee the substance is free from all synthetic opioids.

There are several variations of fentanyl and similarly dangerous substances, and test strips may only screen for the most common ones, professor Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University told VICE.

Only testing a small portion of the drugs may miss fentanyl or another synthetic opioid hiding somewhere else in the bag. It's not always distributed evenly, so a person's next hit could be extra potent even if the sample tested negative.

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