Knox County task force monitoring spike of drug-related deaths in other parts of state

Tennessee
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Parts of West Tennessee have seen a recent uptick in drug-related overdoses and authorities warned that the incidents might be linked to a batch of extremely dangerous drugs.

According to WTVC NewsChannel 9, Chattanooga police and the mayor reported that four people have died of suspected overdoses in just over 24 hours as a result.

Joshua Shaffer, a sergeant with Knoxville Police Department and supervisor of the Drug Related Death Task Force, said he has received calls from the local agencies that experienced the upticks.

Metro Nashville police reported that there have been 21 overdoses since May 31 and Chattanooga police reported four overdoses in a timeframe of 24 hours.

Shaffer said he also talked with authorities in Kentucky who are also dealing with the issue.

He said though, that he hasn’t seen any upticks of drug-related deaths in Knoxville, nor does he think that, if the other overdoses were from a strong batch or a specific dealer, were in Knoxville.

“A lot of the deaths we see in this area are not (from) a single drug. They’re a combination of drugs,” Shaffer said.

He also said that heroin is such a dangerous drug because a batch might be pure heroin, it could be mixed with fentanyl or it could have multiple ingredients.

A user won’t know what is in their supply one day from the next.

“How that leads to deaths is people use based off what they know they can safely use. They’re going to push it to the max, but they know what their body can tolerate. They know what their tolerance is and so that’s what they’re going to use consistently,” Shaffer said.

Steve Wildsmith, content development manager for Cornerstone of Recovery, said that as a former user he knows exactly what Shaffer is talking about.

“You don’t really care where it’s coming from. It’s not like it comes with a list of ingredients, it’s not like it comes with any kind of warning labels. It is something that is handed to you through an illegal transaction and you use it. There’s no questions asked,” Wildsmith said.

He also said that usually when a drug abuser is warned about a batch of drugs leading to overdoses and deaths, they think the person died because they didn’t know how to handle it.

Shaffer said he doesn’t like the term, “bad batch” for that reason. It’s almost like an advertisement.

“When we think of the words ‘bad batch’ or whenever you hear the word there’s a bad shipment of drugs in, you think of, ‘oh it’s laced with something,’ rat poisoning or something like that. When in reality, what that is – is strong drugs,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer said that determining if overdoses were connected to one batch of drugs or one dealer is difficult, and it’s hard to determine based on solely a spike in drug-related deaths. He said a connection can usually only be confirmed when toxicology reports are completed, which could take months.

Other aspects of an investigation could lead to preliminary results of a single batch or dealer as the culprit, such as witness interviews, Shaffer said.

According to the Knox County District Attorney’s Office, there have been 11 suspected drug-related overdose deaths in the month of June.

There have been a total of 116 deaths in 2019 so far.

Shaffer said that the Drug Related Death Task Force monitors reports of spikes in drug-related deaths throughout the state and neighboring states to get an idea if the drugs might come into the area.

He also said that he believes the sudden increase of drug-related deaths in the western part of the state could be a similar issue that Knoxville experienced a few years ago. He hopes they were able to provide helpful information to those investigating agencies.

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