Overdose has police reviewing drug cases

Published 9:10 am Monday, January 12, 2015

FARGO, N.D. — An overdose death from a powerful synthetic morphine has Grand Forks police wondering if other people who’ve been sickened by drugs in the past six months have taken the substance.

Officers last weekend found an unresponsive 18-year-old Grand Forks man who was later pronounced dead. Police said the use of powdered fentanyl was likely a contributing factor in the death of the man, Bailey Henke.

Police Lt. Bill Macki said it’s unusual for authorities to talk about open drug investigations but believe fentanyl could have played a part in other drug overdoses in the area. Grand Forks police are looking into overdose cases dating back to June. Law enforcement in Fargo received a couple of reports in October about people getting sick from heroin laced with fentanyl.

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The investigation into overdoses comes just a few months after the last of 15 defendants was sentenced for providing synthetic hallucinogens that led to the deaths of two Grand Forks-area teenagers. In that case, a Grand Forks man who described himself as a hobby chemist cooked up chemicals he bought online from a Texas company.

“Those cases aren’t at all related, but you could draw a parallel there,” Macki said. “When you can’t account for the origin of substances, that makes them especially dangerous. Just like any illegal drug, even if the origin is somewhat clean or structured, once it gets to someone who is selling it you don’t know what they’re mixing it with.”

Macki said Grand Forks police haven’t talked with other agencies in the area about fentanyl, but he wasn’t surprised to hear about the possible cases in Fargo.

“Our investigation is kind of showing that some of the potential powdered fentanyl users are also heroin users, so I guess I wouldn’t doubt that,” Macki said.

The deaths in the past several years of two bodybuilders in Minnesota and South Dakota were blamed on the use of prescribed fentanyl patches. Unlike those cases, where the fentanyl originally came from a pharmaceutical marketing company, the powder in the Grand Forks death was obtained “through illicit means,” Macki said. He would not be specific.

“We’re certainly working hard to establish where these substances might have come from, but it’s way too early to speculate whether it’s something local or something that is being brought in, or shipped in from overseas.”

In addition, Macki said, the time-released patch is more predictable than the powdered form that has made its way to North Dakota but “there is really no safe way to take this substance.”

Fargo police, fire and public health departments said they haven’t noticed any unusual patterns in drug use, despite the cases of heroin mixed with fentanyl, said Steve Dirksen, the city’s fire chief.

“Our research showed that the numbers have pretty much remained consistent in the number of overdoses in the community over the past four or five years,” Dirksen said. “We haven’t seen anything on the streets or heard about anything since the incidents in October.”