As the sun rose Thursday morning in Boystown, a passerby made a shocking discovery in an alcove less than 50 feet from bustling Belmont Avenue.
Lying unresponsive under a row of brick archways were two men and a woman. They appeared lifeless and, in fact, the two men were pronounced dead. Chicago Fire Department paramedics managed to resuscitate the woman, who was taken to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center.
Autopsy results are still pending for the men, who were just 20- and 21-years-old, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. But authorities suspect that both men and the woman overdosed.
If so, the men’s deaths may be part of a growing number of fatalities in Chicago attributed to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that killed 1,283 people in Chicago last year, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The agency said data suggests an even greater number will die from the drug in Chicago this year.
Illicit drug distributors have cut fentanyl into the heroin supply for years. But the drug, which authorities say is so powerful that a fatal dose can be rested on a pencil point, is making its way into cocaine, methamphetamine, and pills.
“Illicit fentanyl continues to be the main driver of the overwhelming majority of drug overdose deaths and poisonings throughout the country, including in Chicago,” Robert Bell, Special Agent in Charge, of the DEA’s Chicago office, said Thursday. “The Drug Enforcement Administration will continue supporting local and state law enforcement partners with the tools and resources as they investigate drug overdose deaths and poisonings.”
In May, authorities allegedly found six pounds of fentanyl in the trunk of a Chicago man’s car. That seizure alone would be enough to kill 1.5 million people, according to authorities. Yet those six pounds are barely a drop in the bucket. Nationwide, law enforcement officers seized 15,000 pounds of fentanyl last year, according to the DEA.
Among the items seized last year were 20.4 million fake pills that were formed to look like prescription drugs like oxycodone, Xanax, and Adderall.
As fentanyl’s presence in the illegal drug supply spreads, some government agencies are turning from the 1980s-era “Just Say No” approach to encouraging “safe” usage.
During last month’s Lollapalooza festival, the Chicago Department of Public Health urged attendees to “stay safe this weekend” by using drugs with other people, testing drugs for fentanyl, and carrying NARCAN, a drug that can quickly reverse opioid overdoses.
Despite the growing number of fentanyl-related deaths in Chicago, Cook County prosecutors rarely file charges against people who sell or provide the drugs that cause victims to die. Such is not the case in neighboring DuPage County, where prosecutors filed drug-induced homicide charges against two men last week.
“This senseless loss of life must stop and one way to stop it is to hold those who supply fatal doses of narcotics responsible,” said Robert Berlin, DuPage County State’s Attorney. “A dealer, a friend or even a family member may think twice about supplying this poison knowing that they will be looking at a significant amount of time behind bars if they are the proven source of a fatal overdose.”