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Fentanyl has killed thousands in Michigan. This is one family's story.

Posted at 5:03 PM, May 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-03 23:09:57-04

MICHIGAN —

Fentanyl took more lives than ever in Michigan last year.

It kills thousands every year, largely because users often have no idea the fantastically potent synthetic opioid is even there.

Allston Lawwill

Steve and Becky Lawwill's son Allston was one of the victims.

Fentanyl has killed thousands in Michigan. This is one family's story.

"He, over the past maybe two years, just started acting different," Steve Lawwill said. "He was in a successful job at that time and all of a sudden... He just started looking different, acting different."

Becky Lawwill, about her son Allston

Becky Lawwill said, when Allston would come to visit or go to the beach with the family, "he was in his own world on the phone. Everybody else was having fun and there he was just kind of isolating himself."

"We knew he was hiding something, we just didn't know what it was," Steve said.

"We knew he was hiding something, we just didn't know what it was,"

It was addiction.

Allston's wife, Kasey, said Allston started doing cocaine then opioids near the beginning of the pandemic.

The self-prescribed medications quickly took control of his life. Within a matter of months, the 28-year-old husband, father and son, who had always lived with family, found himself living alone during a pandemic in Lansing.

"He was only communicating with his wife at that point and she hadn't heard from him in three days," Steve said.

"He was only communicating with his wife at that point and she hadn't heard from him in three days,"

"So on Nov. 25, she called me and she said, 'I'm very concerned about him.' And just before I got there, she called and said that he's gone, that they'd found him. So you know, it was much worse than we ever imagined."

"It was a gut punch," Becky said. "I remember hearing it, that he was gone. I mean, he was the youngest of the four kids and he was gone? What? What happened?"

The police report on Allston's overdose says he bought cocaine right before his passing, but according to his autopsy report it was fentanyl that led to his heart attack.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid approved for treating severe pain. It's popular with drug dealers because a small amount goes a long way, making it easy to transport without getting caught. It's highly addictive, and its potency makes it extremely lethal.

How lethal?

Sparrow Hospital's Medical Examiner Report for 2020 shows fentanyl overdoses took 134 lives in mid-Michigan in 2020, far more than any other drug.

Of those 134 overdoses, 90 percent were accidental, including Allston's.

The truth is many of these victims have no idea how much fentanyl they're taking.

"It looked like there was no intention at all," Steve said. "There was no note. There was a bag of Wendy's in the microwave, so he was heating up his lunch."

Accidental overdose rates continue to rise because drug dealers are lacing their products with fentanyl in many forms.

Accidental overdose rates continue to rise because drug dealers are lacing their products with fentanyl in many forms.

Michigan State Police Lieutenant Brian Oleksyk, who works with Tri-County Metro Narcotics, said it's common for people not to know fentanyl is in their drug.

"When you're getting your drug, you think you’re buying one drug, but you’re really buying another," he said. "You don’t know what’s in it, and fentanyl is 100 times more potent than for instance morphine."

Lieutenant Brian Oleksyk on the dangers of Fentanyl

That means fentanyl, often compared to heroin for its euphoric effects, only requires someone to take 2 milligrams to overdose.

How much are 2 milligrams? It's barely enough to cover Abraham Lincoln's beard on the penny.

"It's very, very dangerous," Oleksyk said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows fentanyl use has been growing steadily for 10 years in the United States.

Narcotics teams are working to take fentanyl off the streets, but what can be done to save lives in the meantime?

"I think this approach of relying on just reducing the supply and you know, getting rid of drugs and saying no to drugs, that has been tried for many, many decades. And this is where we're at," said Ju Nyeong Park, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who conducts research on drug overdoses.

Can Fentanyl be completely taken out of the market?

If people are going to take drugs, it makes sense to offer a way to be safer with them, harm reduction, she said.

In The FORECAST study, she and colleagues from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Rhode Island Hospital looked at the effectiveness of one safety option.

"We conducted a study that looked at, first of all, the accuracy of fentanyl test strips," Park said. "They are just very simple immunoassay-based strips that rapidly tell you whether your sample of drug solution or drugs mixed in water, contains fentanyl. We found that these tests were 98 percent accurate in detecting fentanyl in solutions."

If users know the amount of fentanyl in their drug is unsafe, they might "throw away that drug or maybe decide to use slower," Park said, "or reduce the amount, or ask their friend to help them if they are to overdose, to help revive them with Naloxone."

Currently, they're limited in supply, your best bet at finding them is at harm reduction programs.

You can enter your address and find your nearest harm reduction service at Michigan.gov.

"It can be a point of entry for people who are interested in treatment or talking to someone to adjust their mental health," Park said.

As for Allston, the boy who always chose for himself what path he would follow, Steve and Becky Lawwill hope reading his story can help another struggling person out there.

They believe they'll see their son in heaven again soon, and they take solace in that.