Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Maryland’s opioid problem has entered scary new territory following the recent overdose deaths of three residents, two of them in Anne Arundel County, who consumed an elephant tranquilizer.

The state Department of Mental Health and Hygiene revealed Friday that the synthetic drug, called carfentanil, was discovered during autopsies on the bodies of the three overdose victims. Carfentanil is about 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 5,000 times stronger than heroin, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The risk in using these drugs cannot be overstated,” said Maryland Public Health Services Deputy Secretary Howard Haft in an apt statement.

Maryland is currently grappling with a sweeping, deadly opioid abuse problem. Data show opioid-related fatal overdoses have more than doubled since 2010 and accounted for 86 percent of the state’s drug and alcohol intoxication deaths in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Baltimore City has endured the brunt of the fatal addiction scourge, figures show.

It’s been deadly enough for Gov. Larry Hogan to recently call a state of emergency to enable more rapid mobilization of local, state and federal resources, such as money for treatment centers. He also created a new entity called the Opioid Operational Command Center to expedite collaboration between agencies.

Heroin, prescription opioids and fentanyl are the main perpetrator drugs in the overdose epidemic. However, the DEA in September 2016 issued a public warning about rising carfentanil-related overdose deaths around the country, foreseeing it as an emerging problem.

“Carfentanil is surfacing in more and more communities,” said DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg in a statement. “We see it on the streets, often disguised as heroin. It is crazy dangerous.”

The warning even tells those who handle the drug, which is intended solely for large animals, to avoid taking samples “or otherwise disturb the substance, as this could lead to accidental exposure.”

The DEA says naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication championed by Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen, can successfully save carfentanil overdose victims as it can for users of heroin and fentanyl, though multiple doses may be required.

State health officials are urging Marylanders with substance abuse problems to get help through or by calling the 24/7 Maryland Crisis Hotline at 1-800-422-0009 – “before it’s too late.”

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...