‘We really haven’t seen heroin’: Rapid rise in Md. fentanyl use detected

A new drug-testing project in Maryland aims to give a real-time look at what the drug landscape in the state looks like, as street drugs get more dangerous.

Edward Sisco, a research chemist at the Gaithersburg, Maryland-based National Institute of Standards and Technology, is leading the pilot program. He told WTOP that eight needle exchanges, including in Calvert and Frederick counties are mailing in swabs of drug paraphernalia that are rapidly tested. Local authorities are sending in samples as well.

While drug testing is not new, “the approach we are doing is a little different,” Sisco said.

“The technology we’re using can give you kind of a complete picture of the drugs that are being consumed in terms of not only the drugs, but the cutting agents as well,” he said.

The program launched back in October. Sisco said they’ve been surprised by what they’ve been finding since then.

“It’s to the point where we really haven’t seen heroin in any of the samples that we’ve been looking at,” he said.

Instead, the tests have mostly detected fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger then heroin.

Fentanyl, which is cheaper and more widely available than heroin, is being blamed for a spike in intoxication deaths nationwide, including in Maryland.

Sisco said another disturbing trend is the increased use of xylazine as a cutting agent. The animal sedative can cause severe infection or even death in humans.

A spokesperson with Maryland’s Department of Health, a partner on the project, told WTOP in a statement: “Until now, public health and public safety have been forced to react … only after people die and these substances are discovered in a toxicology report. This project allows us to take a closer look at what new types of drugs are circulating while investigations are happening –hopefully before we are testing someone who has already died from a suspected overdose.”

Sisco said they plan on expanding the testing program throughout the state.

Shayna Estulin

Shayna Estulin is an anchor/reporter for WTOP. She started her career in New York City as a local TV reporter and has since covered foreign affairs and national politics as a Washington correspondent. She also anchored a nightly news show for an international network.

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