Generally, when a woman comes to my house bringing narcotics, I’m going to be happy no matter what she looks like, but when she looks like she stepped out of the early 90’s golden age of video porn? Well, that’s just gravy now, isn’t it?
And Jade was bringing me the narcotics of the gods.
I should explain. Fentanyl takes me back to my mis-spent youth, to another city and another decade when I used to buy it on the street. They called it “China White” then, after a particularly clean and pure variety of heroin, but that fooled nobody. I used to go looking for it because it compared to ordinary street heroin the way heroin compared to prescription cough syrup. I had a foolproof way of telling the difference too. I’d do a line standing up and if I was still standing up a minute later, I’d been burned again. They’d sold me heroin instead of the real thing.
I’d just been introduced to a new dealer. If you live in the country, friends are the people who lend each other a cup of sugar. In the big city, they’re the ones who introduce you to their dealer when yours stops taking calls.
She listed off her inventory of rare herbs and proscribed pharmaceuticals while I’m trying not to react to how insanely, ridiculously attractive she is and then when she said “Fentanyl” my eyes had an excuse for lighting up. “Bring some of that over next time!”
And so she did. Unbeknownst to either of us, it was uncut Fentanyl. Now what in the fuck is this? In the old days, no one could get their hands on uncut Fentanyl. Nobody let that stuff out of the labs unless it had been whacked 100 to 1; that was the rule. You bought prepackaged single dose bags for ten bucks each. You were never told the exact weight, but it didn’t matter. Somebody smarter than you had calculated and measured out a dose that usually, probably, at least not on most days wouldn’t kill you. Now? It’s amateur night. There’s a million Russian mob labs in Estonia churning the stuff out by the pound, selling it by the gram on the internet, and people are buying it and have no idea what they’re doing with it.
This is the part that’s missing from all those scare stories in the press last summer. The problem isn’t people scraping patches, or otherwise diverting fentanyl from the medicinal stream to the recreational. The little old lady dying of bone cancer isn’t causing four figures worth of overdose deaths by selling half her script out the back door. It’s the bulk powder making its way onto the retail market.
I thought I was being so clever. “I’ve never dealt with this stuff before, you cut me out a line, you show me what a safe dose is.”
Jade took a fly speck of white powder out of the bag and set it out on the glass. On second thought, she took a knife and cut the fly speck in half.
I smirked. “Oh, so you do realize if I die, this cuts down heavily on your opportunities for repeat business, right?”
I wanted to remind her I was trusting her with my life. I was putting my life in her hands. But I didn’t want to say it in so many words.
“Oh God, don’t say things like that!” she said.
I sniffed up half the fly speck, waited a few minutes, didn’t feel a thing. I sniffed up the other half. Waited a few more minutes.
“Oh. I think I’m starting to feel something.” That’s the last thing I remember. After that, the lights went out.
I was doing dishes. I didn’t like to interfere when he did business because well, that was his business. It’s not like I didn’t do a line of smack and coke here and there, and it’s not like I don’t ingest a less than healthy quantity of (prescribed) amphetamines every day, but when it came to doing the actual business, that was his job.
“Hey, buddy, you’re freaking me out. Come on, talk to me!”
I walked into the living room and saw my boyfriend looking like he was asleep on the couch. I’d seen this before, with another friend. He’d taken too much heroin with too much booze, and basically was sleeping. I monitored his heart rate and breathing all night, and made sure he didn’t ever stop breathing, and that he didn’t throw up the wrong way… and he was fine. I figured this would be the same.
I was wrong.
“Hey can you come in here and help me?” Jade asked in a panicked tone from the other room. I shook my head with a grin and came into the living room with arrogance masked as a comforting sense of calm. You see, I couldn’t possibly be too worried. Without getting into too many identifying details, Greg is the kind of boyfriend a woman sleeps next to at night knowing that absolutely nothing is going to happen to her on his watch. He has an uncanny knack for getting himself up shit creek without a paddle, and then seemingly magically fashioning himself one out of last night’s condom and a cigarette butt.
So I rolled my eyes patronizingly at Jade, and sat down beside Greg and began to shake him gently.
“Babe, hey are you in there? You’re really freaking Jade out. Come on. Wake up.”
He was breathing, but it wasn’t a regular in and out breath. He was wheezing to force air out, and I couldn’t hear it going in whatsoever. My brows furrowed. I started to be slightly concerned.
“This isn’t good, his lips are fucking blue!” Jade said, shaking with fear.
I waved my hand at her and went to the kitchen to get a jar of ice and water. “He’ll be fine” I assured her. “Greg is always fine. He scares the ever living shit out of everyone all the fucking time, and then comes out fine. Watch, in a few minutes he’s gonna jump up and shout ‘ta dah!’ and make us both want to kick his ass into Ontario.”
I held the jar to his lips trying to get him to drink. I was unsuccessful; it simply dripped down his chin, onto his shirt. I was worried he didn’t start automatically drinking, but what concerned me even more was that not only did he not drink, the icy cold water dripping on him didn’t even make him flinch.
I took out a wash cloth and filled it with ice cubes to rub on his neck. A few months previously, I had snorted (Greg and I are both extremely averse to needles) a line of heroin, and promptly felt faint, sweat pouring from every gland in my body like a sponge wrung out. Greg had picked me up and had my ass in the bathtub with a cold washcloth filled with ice on my forehead and neck before I even realized my feet were off the ground. I felt immensely better almost immediately. While the two of us have a combined case of curiosity some would call a death wish, neither of us are stupid, and we had talked extensively about harm reduction and safer use practices. For example, we always took a small dose, one of us at a time, and then waited a solid 20-30 minutes before the next one took a turn when sampling a new batch of anything. I had asked him what to do with him if he ever overdosed, and how to tell if something was wrong. He was the one who had explained to me about breathing and heart rates, how to monitor them, and when to call for help.
“If I can’t talk, there’s a problem,” he had told me repeatedly. “Can’t talk – get ice. Can’t *breathe* – get ambulance. Don’t try to deal with ‘can’t breathe’ yourself.” I had always nodded solemnly, letting him know I understood. Greg could make Noam Chomsky look like the quiet type when he got going, so this was no joke.
And I couldn’t get a syllable out of him.
“Do you think we should call 911?” Jade asked.
“Yes, yes I do.”
I ran in the kitchen to get my phone. Jade was practically screaming at this point from pure fear. “I have to get out of here!” she said, which sounded incredibly self-preservatory but was far from it. “Listen to me, listen to me!” she implored. “You call, you take all this shit, you get it the fuck out of here, you got it?! And you call me the second you get to the hospital and let me know what the fuck is going on okay? You got it?” she insisted.
“Got it! Go!” I told her. She ran out the door sobbing.
Writing this out, it sounds awful… but she was right. Once first responders got there this was just going to look weird, and detract from getting Greg the help he needed. We don’t look like the type who would hang out together. Plus it would put her at risk. Her day job is a business where if she has a record, she’s fucked. And in any case, there comes a point in almost any partnership in crime where your partner can’t save you, but they may be able to save themselves, and they’re not a bad person for doing so.
This would be a good time to mention that for the most part, like the overwhelming majority of recreational drug users, Greg and I pass as perfectly normal average people living paycheque to paycheque regular lives. Because, again, like the overwhelming majority of recreational drug users, that’s precisely what we are. He doesn’t even drink during the week. Our house looks like the place you let your elementary schoolers go play after school, because it is. We have an over-abundance of kitchen gadgets (cooking is our other passion) and toys strewn about, more than a handful of pretentious academic political science tomes, and pictures of our family and travels adorn the walls. We drip with normal. I tell you this so you understand this isn’t like the scene in Goodfellas (1990) where Henry and Janice are trying to hide all the coke. I grabbed the glass tablet, the razor blade, the drugs, and had them in our room in my dresser under some tampons and other shit no cops want to look under before I had even finished telling the 911 operator our address.
“I just walked in from walking my dogs and found my boyfriend passed out on the couch. He’s having trouble breathing and I can’t wake him up. I need an ambulance right away!”
I had made a conscious decision that until I found it was necessary, I was not going to tell the first-responders what he had taken. This is a very personal decision to make and some would find fault with it. My reasoning was as follows: First responders are trained to figure out what happened with very little information. After all, often times no one knows why the person is passed out. I knew that the way he was presenting, they were going to check for overdose quickly. After all, we live in a neighbourhood where there are occasionally posters put up warning people about overdose and what to do about it. And this isn’t the hood. It’s a nice family neighbourhood. But overdose has moved into the PTA crowd and the public health authorities are aware of it.
Like many recreational drug users in our prohibition culture, I didn’t want to get into trouble, and I certainly did not want to get Greg into trouble. I knew the second I said he had done Fentanyl they would grill him when he woke up and that I would probably be taken in as well for questioning. They might search our home. Our neighbours might notice. The whole situation would go from the medical emergency it was to a legal persecution and prosecution. So I said I came home from walking the dogs, found him like that, and I stuck to it. I remembered one time Greg and I had a philosophical conversation about the concept of “unnecessary information” and I recounted how if someone asks me “do you know what time it is?” I don’t say “four o’clock” I simply say “yes,” and that is all, because that is all they asked. Greg replied “fuck that, I say ‘it’s 7:30, asshole’ and keep moving.” I felt confident he would approve of my withholding at this time.
The 911 dispatcher asked me if I knew what was wrong. Seeing his inhaler on the coffee table I blurted out “he has really bad asthma!” Yeah. That was it. A super terrible very bad asthma attack. Yeah. There we go. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The dispatcher walked me through getting him on the floor safely and beginning chest compressions to keep him breathing and prevent oxygen deprivation. Every bit of me wanted to freak the fuck out and scream, because I was terrified, but that would simply not do because if I did that I wouldn’t be able to take care of things.
I had two huge fears running through my head. The first was, obviously, that Greg was either going to die or end up severely brain damaged. The dread of seeing the man you love and have a life with in that condition, that close to death, is pretty horrible. I have held two older relatives as they died and I know what near-death looks like. Greg had that look. I kept whispering “no no no, not yet baby, not yet” because it felt grotesquely unfair. We were good to each other. We were happy.
Oh yeah, family. That was my second fear. Greg and his brother Sam are fiercely protective of one another. I’m pretty sure they love each other more than any woman either of them has ever been involved with. I am completely okay with this. I grew up in a house full of brothers as the only girl, and find their testosterone laden brotherly bond familiar and comforting. I knew that while Greg loves me deeply, his brother does not any further than I am important to Greg and therefore important to him in a very general and vague sense of the word. Any grace I earn from Sam would be on my own, and calling him up with some cockamamie bullshit story that his brother croaked while I was walking the dogs was not going to be the way to earn Sam’s favour.
And so, I kept my shit together by chanting in my head as I gave compressions “Sam is going to kill you. Sam is going to kill you. Sam is going to kill you” reminding myself what would happen if I stopped or paused. Utter relief swept over me as the first responders came in roughly ten minutes after I called 911. I backed up letting them take over. Our small living room was engulfed with medical and law enforcement personnel. I stood in the doorway between the living room and the rest of the house, creating a barrier so the cops wouldn’t go snooping. I knew if he could see me, he’d be proud. I hoped I would get to tell him as they loaded him into the ambulance a few minutes later after stabilizing him, me sitting in the front seat as we drove off to the local hospital.
Once there, they placed me in a private waiting room. The nice kind with chairs and a telephone usually reserved for families when shit is getting very real with their relative. And I waited.
Next thing I know, I’m lying down and there’s a blinding overhead light in my eyes. I sit up and my head is spinning and my vision is blurred. There’s something sharp stuck in my arm so I pull it out. A couple of vague, fuzzy figures rush up and try to grab hold of me. I swat one away. Hard. I can feel the back of my hand connect solidly with what feels like the side of someone’s head. It’s strangely satisfying. The world comes into focus. I see a room full of people in masks and gowns. One’s a little-girl nurse holding her jaw in pain. Oh. Not cool. Shouldn’t have done that. Need to talk to her later. There’s medical equipment everywhere. One of the masks wants to know if I know where I am.
I take a wild guess. “In a hospital?” Wait. What am I doing in the hospital? Last thing I remember, I was getting high at home. Oh. I see. I see now. Fucking Jade! I *told* her I was a lightweight and I wanted a lightweight dose. I’m curious her idea of a lightweight… What must have happened? Let’s say she gave me 5 milligrams, one percent of what was in the bag. Shit, what if it wasn’t cut 100-to-1? Then I didn’t take 50 mikes of the drug, I took like 5000. That’s a fatal overdose several times over. Shit, talk about dodging a bullet!
The doctor told me later I’d got a shot of Narcan. Yeah… He didn’t buy the “asthma attack” story for a second. But bless Cindy for trying. Lying to your doctors is childish and stupid – but so are the drug laws. That Narcan stuff is magic. It doesn’t actually neutralize dope in your body – but it feels like it does, and instantaneously at that. What it does, it grabs hold of your opiate receptors so aggressively all the dope gets squeezed out. Then the dope just waits around while your liver and kidneys metabolize it away. Narcan is getting cleared for over the counter sale in more and more places, including BC, but not yet Quebec. I also found out when I got the shot I’d sat up, ripped out my tube, and got pinned down a first time without being conscious of it. I flatlined again when they did that. Apparently, I’d been flatlining on and off for 20 minutes in my apartment before they’d let me in the ambulance. Anyway, they gave me a second, larger, shot of Narcan and that was it. Back on like a light switch.
That’s the cliché: Overdosing is like flipping a light switch off. Clichés are clichés for a reason. It really is like that. No fear. No pain. Just… nothing.
I suppose some people would have thrown the dope away after that. But partly as a public service, partly because of my own psychological need to get back on the horse – partly too because I have a reputation to uphold as the conqueror of all substances – I took on the project of figuring out how to dilute the stuff and make it safe to consume.
Here’s the problem other people run into and the reason we’re getting all those adulterated heroin overdoses. When you mix a tiny amount of one powder with a much larger amount of another powder, the result isn’t going to be perfectly uniform. And fentanyl is particularly unforgiving that way. The difference between an enjoyable dose and an overdose is much smaller than with most other drugs, like a factor of less than three. Three times a strong but safe dose can kill you. So if overall, your mix is supposed to be 99% cut but one little area of it is only 97%, that’s a 911 call that hasn’t happened yet. The first procedure you’ll find on Google is going to tell you to mix dry powder with dry powder and I don’t recommend following it for exactly that reason.
What I did was to mix my fentanyl with an inert carrier medium in liquid solution. Second Law of Thermodynamics – it’s impossible NOT to have a liquid mixture come out perfectly uniform. Think about it. When you go to a public swimming pool at the end of the day, is all the children’s piss restricted to the shallow end of the pool or is there just as much in the deep end too? Same rules apply.
I added 49.5 grams of glucose tablets to a mickey of Alcool 94. Glucose won’t actually dissolve in ethanol, but it’ll make a good-enough suspension in which to mix the fentanyl. (I’ve since made a larger batch using methyl hydrate. The solubility stats are comparable and it evaporates much faster. Fumes are nasty and need to be fanned away, though.) Then I added the .5 grams fentanyl (which does dissolve). I used a dust mask and rubber gloves while handling raw fentanyl – you can absorb a fatal dose through your skin just touching the stuff. A Montreal drug cop nearly did that a couple of years ago.
I ran the mix in a kitchen mixer for a few hours and then let it sit for a few days to evaporate off the ethanol. The result is 50 grams of sugar that’s perfectly uniformly 1% fentanyl by weight. As a plus, my glucose tablets were bright red and raspberry-flavored. Impossible for anyone to take the finished product and mix it up with or pass it off as heroin. And if dabbing at brightly-colored fruit-flavored sugar doesn’t sound sufficiently bad-ass, note that the special forces issue fentanyl laced lollipops to dull the pain of battlefield injuries. If Navy SEALs don’t find their masculinity threatened by that, I suppose I don’t either.
Next, I got a headshop scale (precise to 1/100th of a gram). I started measuring out doses beginning with 10 mg (100 micrograms of fentanyl) and slowly, carefully, incrementally, worked my way up. It’s also important to know that how you take the stuff makes a big difference. Letting the sugar melt in your mouth requires twice the dose that sniffing or shooting does to get the same effect. Swallowing the sugar requires three times as much.
For a hundred years, the single most significant characteristic of narcotics has been the artificial scarcity caused by law enforcement – with consequent high prices, lack of quality standards, control of the market by antisocial criminals, etc., etc… All that is now changing. I can now buy a year’s supply of narcotics off the internet (or at one remove from the internet) for less money than I’ve been known to spend on a single weekend’s entertainment. Law enforcement will have a much harder time interfering and driving up prices. No one criminal gang can declare and enforce exclusive “turf” on the internet – the concept has no meaning anymore. Narcotic sellers are going to have to compete on price, quality, transparency and customer service, just like the sellers of everything else.
When I was a legalization activist 30 years ago, all this is what we said would happen if you took law enforcement out of the equation. We didn’t yet have the term “harm reduction” although we were groping toward the concept. And we are going to get there, it’s just going to be a whole lot rockier than my 19-year-old China White sniffing self ever imagined. First rule of activism: Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.
—Greg & Cindy Markowitz
EDITOR’S NOTE: If this was a New York story, it would end in death. If it was an L.A. story, it would end in a Twelve-Step Program. But since it’s a Montreal story, it ends in human ingenuity and technological innovation.