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Where did deadly cocaine in Capitol Hill overdoses come from?

The Seattle Police Department is winding down the investigation of two women who died on Capitol Hill after snorting chemical-laced cocaine, but a search for the source of the drugs could expand if similar overdoses continue.

Sara Valenzuela, 36, and Maria Paschell, 49, were found dead inside a Capitol Hill apartment on May 30th. According to police, evidence indicated the women had been dead for about two days and had snorted cocaine before they died.

While the cause of the deaths remains pending toxicology reports, King County Public Health issued a warning that cocaine found in the apartment may have been laced with acetylfentanyl — a chemical that is five times stronger than heroin and stronger than prescription fentanyl.

A Seattle Police spokesperson told CHS signs point to an accidental overdose and that it is unlikely investigators will track down the source of the drug. “There’s just very little to follow on a case like this,” said SPD spokesperson Patrick Michaud.

However, if similar overdoses continue, Michaud said it is possible that police could widen an investigation into the drug’s source with the assistance of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. SPD’s case on the double overdose remains open.

“We still have an obligation to the people that are dead to investigate it as thoroughly as possibly,” Michaud said. “Just because the activities they were partaking in were illegal shouldn’t matter.”

Tracking the spread of something like fentynal-laced cocaine can be difficult. Drugs seized by Seattle police are tested in the field and then sent to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for more controlled testing. Those tests are limited to confirming if a specific substance is present, like cocaine or heroin. Unless there is a reason to test for other substances — like fentanyl showing up in the results of a medical examiner’s toxicology report — additional tests are not typically conducted, Michaud said.

In March, DEA agents raided a fentanyl lab in south Seattle as part of an ongoing investigation into dealers cutting heroin with the powerful substance.


Fentanyl making supplies seized by police outside Vancouver, BC. (Image: Delta Police Department)

An illegal fentanyl processing lab was recently discovered by police outside Vancouver, BC. Subsequent drug seizures around Delta, BC also uncovered W-18, a chemical even more powerful than fentanyl. The Delta Police Department released a warning last week about the findings:

Drug investigators believe that the W-18 was being manufactured to appear like heroin or oxycodone before being sold at the street level. For users, this results in a much higher and deadly risk of overdose as they are exposed to a drug they have no tolerance for. In many cases, users are not aware that W-18 (and/or fentanyl) is in the drug that they are consuming. Because the counterfeit heroin and oxycodone are manufactured in clandestine labs, there is no guarantee that the W-18 or fentanyl is evenly distributed or mixed throughout the cutting agent. This causes street users to face potential overdoses from “hot spots” of fentanyl or W-18.

The last known acetylfentanyl death in King County was in 2015, according to public health officials. The opioid overdose antidote naloxone may be used to reverse the effects of acetylfentanyl but officials said a higher dose may be required compared to heroin.

Valenzuela’s mother spoke with KOMO about the deaths. “There’s no way to describe this grief, it’s all encompassing. I don’t want another parent to have to go through this. This is hell. Truly hell,” she said.

UPDATE 6/9/2016: A reader has pointed out a strange coincidence from the CHS archives. Here’s another May CHS headline… from 2011:

Two Capitol Hill deaths linked to possible Fentanyl-laced cocaine overdoses
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Two cocaine-related overdose deaths of men who had been hanging out together has prompted SPD to issue a warning about the dangers of Fentanyl, an increasingly popular and sometimes dangerously powerful opiate.


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