Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
HOLLADAY — Fifteen years ago, Chris Lovell was living a good life.
"I had a business. I had a house, a girlfriend. I had everything I wanted," he said.
But after an injury, Lovell started taking prescription painkillers and soon became addicted.
"Four years later, I got a mugshot, an offender number and I became a statistic of people with a misunderstood illness," he said.
Lovell became addicted to heroin. Then he became addicted to fentanyl after unknowingly buying heroin that was laced with the deadly drug. The first time Lovell took it, he says he and three of his friends overdosed that night. It was only because of naloxone his mother made him carry — which can reverse an overdose if taken in time — that his life was saved.
Despite overdosing, Lovell said he took the heroin again the next two days and again, overdosed each time.
Today, the recovering addict has been clean for 2 1/2 years. But for two of those years, he was incarcerated at the Utah State Prison.
On Friday, Lovell was invited by the Unified Police Department, Salt Lake City Police Department and Unified Fire Authority to share his story, in hopes of warning others about the dangers of fentanyl.
Salt Lake City Police Lt. Sam Wolf, who is also head of the Salt Lake County Drug Enforcement Administration Taskforce, said there were about 2,600 deaths across the U.S. in 2001 where fentanyl was a contributing factor. By 2018, that number had risen to 31,000; and, in 2021, the number of deaths skyrocketed to 100,000, he said.
Over the past four months, Unified fire crews have responded to 247 overdose incidents due to opioids within Salt Lake County.
Law enforcers believe one reason for the dramatic increase is drug dealers began lacing other drugs with fentanyl — unbeknownst to the user — and began pressing the deadly synthetic opioid into pills and marketing them as drugs such as oxycodone, OxyContin, Xanax, and sometimes even vitamins, Wolf said.
Today, Wolf says more than 40% of the illegal pills seized by agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration are laced with fentanyl.
"Law enforcement in Utah has already seized more than half a million fake pills this year, more than doubling pill seizure numbers from last year," said Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera.
According to law enforcers, the latest marketing strategy for drug dealers is to manufacture fentanyl-laced pills with bright colors. In August, the DEA issued a press release warning the public of so-called "rainbow fentanyl."
Some, however, questioned whether the brightly colored pills were really being marketed toward children and trick-or-treaters this Halloween, noting that for-profit drug dealers typically don’t hand out free samples, and that fentanyl would more than likely kill a young child rather than get them to become a repeat customer.
Neither Rivera nor Wolf believes rainbow fentanyl will be handed out to unsuspecting children on Halloween.
"We’re not concerned about Halloween and putting it in the candy. But in the event that were to occur, we don’t want parents to come back and say they weren’t warned. We’re just bringing awareness," Rivera said.
Nevertheless, Wolf said his agents recently seized rainbow fentanyl in a powder form in the Salt Lake Valley.
While he does not believe the colorful drug is being marketed to teens and young adults as actual candy, he said investigators believe the colors are being used as a way to entice young people into buying narcotics on the dark web. For example, he said a pill being marketed as prescription pain medication might be laced with rainbow fentanyl simply to make the pill look more appealing to a young user.
"Our understating is it’s a marketing ploy from the criminals and they’re trying to package it, make it look more colorful. They’re trying to make it look like fun candies," he said. "When they get that high, they come back as repeat customers because they really enjoy that high. I don’t know if they’re out there specifically looking for rainbow fentanyl — that’s not typically the first thing they’re going out there to try. They’re just looking for illegal narcotics online and they think that this looks pretty, this looks nice, and so they’re purchasing those illegal narcotics."
The message, Wolf and Rivera said, is to make the public understand that buying unprescribed medications is incredibly risky as there is no guarantee the buyer isn’t getting a pill laced with fentanyl.
Lovell says that’s what happened to him.
He and his friends thought they were purchasing "China white," something drug users consider the "unicorn" of heroin, he said. Instead, he got drugs laced with fentanyl. But his body quickly became addicted.
"It started out as not knowing it was fentanyl. And then once you start using fentanyl, heroin doesn’t do the same, so you almost have to look for it and you become addicted to that because heroin doesn’t do the same thing for you anymore," he said.
Lovell said when fentanyl-laced pills first came onto the scene, "everyone started dropping like flies."
He credits his mother for keeping him alive. Even though she couldn’t get him to stop using drugs, he said she always made sure he had naloxone with him, even slipping it into his backpack without his knowledge when he didn’t want it. Not only did it save him, but Lovell said he used it to save the lives of four to five other people.
When asked whether it takes prison for a person to get clean from fentanyl, Lovell said some addicts are able to find other ways. But "I don’t know of many addicts who quit on their own," he said.
"Most heroin addicts usually have to go to prison," he continued. "It’s something that’s beyond anything that you can think of, mentally. It’s a physical addiction. I do know that a lot of dealers are lacing methamphetamine to fentanyl because it makes you physically addicted to it. Even if you don’t like that high, you’re physically addicted to that drug.
"Dealers started lacing heroin with fentanyl, thinking that whoever had the strongest dope has more customers," Lovell said. "I lost everything, went to prison and I can’t do it no more."