Kerry Cohen, the mother of a McDaniel High School student who overdosed on fentanyl last March filed a lawsuit in September, suing a distributor involved in the case. Griffin Hoffmann, Cohen’s 16 year old child, overdosed on fentanyl-laced pills that were allegedly distributed by Manuel Antonio Souza Espinoza, a third-level dealer. Within 24 hours of Hoffman’s death, another McDaniel student also overdosed on fentanyl.
These deaths resurfaced years-old discussions about fentanyl, specifically regarding the dangers for youth. However, as Lieutenant Chris Lindsey, who oversees the Specialized Resources and Narcotics and Organized Crime Divisions of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) puts it, “there are no demographics to this drug.”
Fentanyl is found among every age group, geographic region, race, and socio-economic status and is only growing more common. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) states Oregon fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased by 125% from 2020 to 2021 and fatalities are projected to remain level or increase in the coming years.
Lindsey is especially concerned about the decrease in fentanyl’s cost seen over the last few years. In the past, pills on the street were typically sold from $5-10 and are now often only $2. This means people can afford larger quantities, with Lindsey citing a person smoking 50 fentanyl pills a day as an example.
The low cost and high potency makes fentanyl a common cutting agent used by manufacturers. They take more expensive drugs, like cocaine or methamphetamine, and lace them with fentanyl to increase production. Counterfeit pills are a large cause of fentanyl-related deaths. Hoffmann overdosed on what he believed to be oxycodone “M30” pills. Lindsey describes this as the most impactful aspect of fentanyl investigations. “Seeing [youth] die as a result of a drug that they may not have known they were taking… it feels like a theft or a robbery.”
The extreme potency of the drug increases the high received from taking it, making it dangerously addictive. With counterfeit pills circulating, people may become addicted to fentanyl while under the perception that they’re using something else. The potency also makes it lethal, with two milligrams commonly being considered a fatal dose. That amount can fit on the tip of a pencil.
Lindsey believes that dealers understand the impacts, but “it’s more about making money than anything.” The fentanyl business has booming profits. Most of the supply is manufactured by transnational drug cartels in Mexico who then transport the drug into the US along major freeways. Interstate 5 (I-5) plays a crucial role in drug trafficking, and Lindsey says that cartels have infiltrated Oregon, as well as Washington, California, and Idaho.
PPB is part of the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. Police commanders from each state attend meetings where they discuss the fentanyl epidemic and how best to combat it. They examine trends, analyze the effectiveness of preventative measures, and connect each other with resources. In 2021, HIDTA reportedly seized more than 1.3 million counterfeit pills in Oregon according to the OHA.
One of HIDTA’s strategies is tracking the levels of dealers. In overdose cases they start with the level one dealer, the one who had direct contact with the victim. If found, they use the level one dealer to track down the level two dealer. The level two dealer is the person who sold the drugs to the level one dealer. The tracking is continued to the highest levels possible, until the trail goes cold.
In the Hoffmann case, Espinoza was the third-level supplier. Typically, the higher the level, the larger the volume of drugs they are dealing. The Department of Justice describes Espinoza as a high-volume dealer, and he has been indicted federally.
The counterfeit M30 pills Espinoza supplied were manufactured with fentanyl, which is a typical occurrence as fentanyl has no taste. The only way to know if a drug has been laced is through the use of fentanyl test strips.
Free fentanyl test strips are offered at the Multnomah County Harm Reduction Clinic through their Syringe Exchange program. The harm reduction clinic is open Monday to Thursday from 11am to 7pm at 12425 NE Glisan St, Portland, OR 97230. More information can be found at https://www.multco.us/hiv-and-std-services/syringe-exchange-and-disposal. The clinic also offers overdose rescue kits which include naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, although nation-wide naloxone shortages have made access to these resources difficult. In addition, most insurers provide coverage for naloxone if you take prescription opioids.