People in Seattle who would never touch heroin are trying fentanyl. What they don’t know is that it’s basically the same thing, only stronger.Brian is a rock musician who moved to Seattle about a year ago from a small town in the South. "I was straight-edge for a long time growing up, and there wasn't much down there," he says. "Just small-town potheads and some guys doing meth in a shack somewhere." His most intense drug experiences involved beer and marijuana.
Within months of moving, he was in a popular underground band. John, also in the band and one of Brian's roommates, brought a lot of drugs into their place—pot, pills, cocaine.
"One night, we're hanging out and—typical John—he brings out this white powder and asks me if I want some," Brian remembers. "He doesn't tell me what it is at all. We're freebasing—he pours the powder on some foil, gives me the straw, and lights it up. And I'm like, 'This is fucking awesome!' I just felt so good, so light, just so relaxed. And I ask him: 'What is this?' 'Fentanyl.' 'Oh, what's that?' 'It's heroin.'"
Brian went on: "I was mad—like, 'Oh my god, I just did heroin?!' It could be said that addiction runs in my family. Ever since I was a kid, I was told to be careful. I've got aunts and uncles in and out of rehab. And this feels so fucking good—I can really see this becoming a problem. It feels like total relaxation. Finally. It feels like you've been at a spa the whole day. Instantly."
Brian has used fentanyl since then at his place, mostly during parties. "F at this place is pretty open," he says. (This is a little unusual—most fentanyl users treat it as a secret, sometimes shameful thing.) "If we're doing it, we'll freebase, because we want to be all sleazy, you know?" Brian says. "There's a bit of novelty to it, the freebasing. Like: 'We're doing this fucking heroin, we're already being such scumbags.'"
Another musician, Jake, first tried fentanyl in a room at a party with a few bandmates. Nobody really knew what it was. "It didn't really have an identity at that time," he says. "So some people did it and some people didn't, and it wasn't a big deal—nobody thought of it as heroin." Eva first tried it with her boyfriend, a dealer. He didn't really explain what it was, either. Charles was offered a line to sniff by some coworkers during an office party. Keith, Stilly, and others—I've changed all the names—told similar stories: They saw it (usually at a party), didn't really know what it was, used it a few times, would probably use it again, and haven't found themselves addicted to it yet.
Then again, there are others—Sam, Claude, Bony—who tried it a few times and had, or still have, an urgent, daily, metabolic need to constantly keep some F in their bodies.
Claude, another local musician, first came across fentanyl through a friend who happened to be a dealer. Before long, he'd wrapped himself in its web. "I didn't realize it was happening," he says. "It grabs hold of you."
You don't become a narcotics addict after your first dose. It is a process, a subtle inching along a hallway, into a room whose doorframe you don't even notice as you're walking through it. But once you're inside—once you first feel the thrumming pangs of withdrawal—you're an addict. It always comes as a surprise.
Soon, Claude was spending several hours a day at his friend's house: freebasing, playing video games, and listening to music with a crew of six or seven people. Because it's cut with sugar and smells sweet when it's heated, they called it "shug."
Claude kept his habit secret, even from his friends and bandmates. He has connections in the hiphop world where—unlike Brian's rock 'n' roll friends who "want to be all sleazy"—freebasing is frowned upon.
"No, no, I definitely don't see F in the hiphop and DJ community," Claude says. "Because it's hiphop. Freebasing is not a glamorous-looking thing. There could be any kind of shit in there." Claude saw a few small overdoses among his crew during his time with fentanyl—some requiring a little resuscitation, none requiring professional medical help—but finally decided to quit when he overdosed.
"I had already realized it was a problem," he says. "Eventually, on shug, everything turned gray—no ups, no downs, no range of emotions. If you offered me either a date with a super-hot chick or a $50 bag of F, I would've taken the F and gone home."
One night, he nodded off and a friend said he'd stopped breathing. The day after, he had a blowout fight with his dealer-friend and hasn't been back. He suffered through withdrawals—"irritable, achy, my skin feeling like the chemical was burning while it seeped out of my body"—and that was that.
"I'm so glad I'm off it," he says. "I have friends who didn't even know I was using who said my whole personality seemed to come back."
Or take Sam, whose story is like a cliché from D.A.R.E., except that it has a happy ending. (Almost all of the fentanyl users interviewed for this story, by the way, went through the federal government's Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in the public school system.) Sam is in his mid-20s and works at what he calls "a corporate job." He hangs out with the glitch-hop crowd—"an electronica scene with a little bit of Burner crossover," in his words—where he first ran across fentanyl.
"I've always experimented with stuff over the years." Sam says he's used marijuana, psychedelics, the occasional Vicodin or Percocet, and it never seemed to do him any harm. At a small party about three years ago, one of his friends brought out some white powder and explained it was a strong opiate called fentanyl. "People are not aware of what fentanyl is, and that may be the reason they are willing to try it," he says. "If someone put heroin in front of you and asked if you wanted some, 99 percent of people would say, 'No way.'"
He sniffed a line or two, liked it, tried it a few more times, really liked it, and then the city's fentanyl supply—or at least his connections to it—seemed to dry up.
Then, in the summer of 2009, he started hanging around with a girlfriend who liked opiates. He'd heard that fentanyl was back in the city, so he went back to it. "I was kind of doing it recreationally for a while, but your tolerance builds almost immediately, after just a week," he says. (The half-life of fentanyl is only about two hours, experts say. The half-life of heroin is around six.) "I would start to go into withdrawals on a daily basis."
Within a couple of weeks, Sam was in deep. He managed to hold down his corporate job, but he needed a steady supply of fentanyl to keep him going. "At the height, I was using in the morning, at lunchtime, and in the evening just to stay normal." Sam had set some rules for himself—how often he'd use, how much money he'd spend—and was horrified by how quickly he broke them all. Withdrawals set in quickly and sharply whenever he couldn't make his connection: insomnia, hot flashes, cold chills, full-body aches, his guts seeming to liquefy into vomit and diarrhea.
"I ended up blowing through all of my savings, and everything hit the fan," he remembers. "It broke up my relationship with my girlfriend. And then fentanyl dried up in the city—all at the same time. In retrospect, it kind of worked out for me in a way. If it were still around, I probably still would have used it."
Sam has health insurance through his job, so he sought help from an addiction specialist and started taking Suboxone, a narcotic replacement-therapy drug. (Suboxone has advantages over methadone but is considerably more expensive.) Suboxone staved off the most acute withdrawals, and Sam pulled his life back into shape. He started saving money and even got a promotion at work. Soon he'll be taking a long business trip to a faraway country he's never visited before, and he's very excited. "It worked out," he says. "It's almost storybook."
But if fentanyl crossed his path again, would he use it?
He pauses. "If someone put it in front of me, I would probably do it," he says. "And I would probably have a lot of regrets because of what the cycle entails, the extreme ups and extreme downs. It's horrible. Horrible. But I still think about it every day."
Sam pauses again, then adds: "This is my absolute overall perspective on that stuff—it's absolutely amazing, it will ruin your life, it will steal all your money, and you will still love it more than anything."More ...