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Potent Drug, Carfentanil, New Factor in Opioid Epidemic

A powerful new opioid, carfentanil, has already caused at least five overdose-related deaths in Minnesota this year.  

Officials from across the state gathered to discuss the public safety risk the synthetic drug poses. The substance, used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large animals, is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.   

In addition to the five deaths, it is possible there could be more deaths related to carfentanil. 

“We have at least four to five additional fatal cases in which we suspect the possibility of carfentanil, but the confirmatory testing is still pending,” Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker said.

Drug cause for concern across state

Currently, routine drug and alcohol screens do not detect the drug, so samples needed to be sent to a specialized lab for testing. Tests confirmed that the drug caused three deaths in Minneapolis, one in Dakota County and one in Rice County.

“A 900-kilogram elephant can be immobilized by just two milligrams of carfentanil. This drug is ultra-potent,” Jon Cole of Hennepin County Medical Center and the Minnesota Poison Control System said.

The drug is not only a threat to the Twin Cities, but is a statewide threat. 

“The use of opioids like carfentanil is a health crisis for Minnesota. It is a law enforcement crisis and it is a crisis for all Minnesotans. We need to work together to address the crisis with information, education and enforcement,” Drew Evans of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has investigated 11 different cases involving carfentanil during the past six months.

The emergence of this new drug is cause for concern, with opioid-related deaths continuing to rise in Minnesota. Its relative strength could cause a larger increase in overdoses, even among drug users who have built a tolerance to opioids.  

Agencies working together to raise awareness

“We’ve had three of confirmed deaths in Minneapolis. One of our homicide detectives is assigned to all three cases. He is going to be collaborating with Faribault and Apple Valley to deep dive on any information they have,” Bruce Folkens of the Minneapolis Police Department said.

Carfentanil can also harm first responders and law enforcement exposed to the drug. The substance can come in several forms, including powder, blotter paper, tablets, patch, and spray. Some forms can be absorbed through the skin or accidentally inhaled.

“This is not something that’s just affecting the inner city. It’s everywhere throughout state of Minnesota. We also want to offer assurance that we’ll all be collaborating on this threat,” Apple Valley Police Chief Jon Rechtzigel said.

Baker said that, while there have been reports of clusters of carfentanil-related deaths in the U.S., these five deaths represent the first confirmed cases in Minnesota.

“The Medical Examiner’s Office felt it important not just to inform the public of this new hazard, but to ensure that our colleagues on the front lines of saving lives were aware that carfentanil has now been confirmed to be in Minnesota,” Baker said.

More information

Read more about carfentanil.

People who have questions about carfentanil can call the Minnesota Poison Control System at 1-800-222-1222. The system is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.