One man’s journey through opioid addiction and why officials say we’re ‘in a war’ with fentanyl
IDAHO FALLS – The tattoo above Zack Mahan’s right knee has a story behind it that was years in the making.
Etched in ink are the words, “I love me 9-9-20.” For Mahan, being able to say he loves himself is a big deal, and it came with a hefty price.
In a conversation with EastIdahoNews.com, Mahan says the date tattooed on his leg is the day he died.
“I overdosed on drugs. I took heroin laced with fentanyl,” the 38-year-old Idaho Falls man says. “I was dead.”
Exactly how long he was dead is unclear. To this day, Mahan has no idea. The next thing he remembers is lying in a hospital bed in Idaho Falls.
“I woke up, and I had a tube in my throat, and I had burns on my chest from the defibrillation paddles,” Mahan says.
He thinks they used Narcan as well, which is a medication used to treat opioid overdoses.
Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine and about 50 times more potent than heroin, according to Bonneville County Sheriff Sam Hulse. A lethal dose of fentanyl is about the size of 5-10 grains of salt, which makes it easy to overdose.
On that day, Mahan thought he was getting high on heroin. He had no idea fentanyl was one of the ingredients.
At that time, Mahan had been a drug addict for more than 20 years. He had part of his frontal lobe removed in 2017 after being diagnosed with brain cancer. It motivated him to cut back on his usage for a while, but it wasn’t long before he was back on the streets selling and using drugs.
“I got back on the needle and went back to using (drugs) intravenously. Really threw my whole life off the rails,” Mahan says.
And he had no intention of ever stopping.
Mahan’s introduction to opiates happened as an 11-year-old kid. His parents owned a taco stand on 1st Street at the time, and he was injured in a grease fire that burned 85% of his body.
During his hospital stay, doctors gave him morphine with trace amounts of fentanyl to kill the pain.
Mahan still remembers how it made him feel. He loved it and wanted more of it. Working as a drug dealer gave him access to all the drugs he wanted.
Eventually, he was arrested and spent some time in prison. He’d recently completed a rider program when he overdosed in Sept. 2020.
His brush with death was finally enough to get him to stop. He realized for the first time in his life that he had value and that he was worth saving.
“It was the last time I used heroin,” Mahan says.
The opioid epidemic and the rise of fentanyl addiction
Mahan’s story is similar to many others who have struggled with addiction.
Another Idaho Falls man, who asked that we identify him only as Joe S., was also given trace amounts of fentanyl as a pain killer. It was a prescription following a surgery more than 20 years ago. Unlike Mahan, Joe’s treatment came in the form of a patch. Though the dosage was only a few micrograms, it resulted in years of addiction to opiates and other drugs.
Joe was finally able to get it under control about 18 months ago.
Both Joe and Mahan are products of the opioid epidemic of the 1990s. During this time, pharmaceutical companies marketed opioids as a pain medication and assured doctors that the chance of addiction was extremely low.
The number of opioid prescriptions skyrocketed, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Over time, doctors discovered that many people had become addicted, and it was claiming lives. Between 1999 and 2020, the CDC reports more than 564,000 people nationwide died from opioid overdoses.
Earlier this year, Idaho received a $119 million settlement from a lawsuit filed against pharmaceutical companies years before.
Though there’s been some reckoning in the wake of the opioid crisis, the illegal use of opioids hasn’t stopped. In fact, Hulse says it’s a bigger problem now than ever before.
As of Aug. 10, Hulse says patrol deputies and the Idaho Falls Police Department have seized a total of 5,243 pills in 2022. This is significantly higher than the amount recovered in previous years.
In addition, 15 of the 25 drug-related deaths in Bonneville County this year were due to fentanyl.
“We are in a war with fentanyl, and it remains to be seen how bad it is going to be,” Hulse says.
Since fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, Hulse says it’s cheap to produce, and it’s often combined with other drugs, like heroin, to increase the quantity.
“If we find heroin and we test it, it’s usually got some fentanyl in it,” Hulse says.
And he says the surge of fentanyl in eastern Idaho is tied directly to the crisis at the US-Mexico border.
“Cartels that are extremely powerful are trafficking a mass amount of drugs into our communities almost with impunity right now because our southern border is as bad as we’ve ever seen it,” Hulse says.
Data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows the number of illegal migrants coming into the U.S. has reached an all-time high. In August, border agents detained 203,598 migrants crossing from Mexico. U.S. authorities made more than 2.3 million arrests along the southern border over the last fiscal year, which exceeds last year’s record of 1.7 million arrests.
Border agents have seized more than 601,000 pounds of drugs in connection with those arrests. Meth and marijuana seem to be the most common, according to CBP, but there is a significant increase in the amount of fentanyl seized since last year.
“The Drug Enforcement Administration and its law enforcement partners seized more than 10.2 million fentanyl pills and approximately 980 pounds of fentanyl powder during the period of May 23 through Sept. 8, 2022,” a DEA news release says. “The amount of fentanyl taken off the streets during this surge is equivalent to more than 36 million lethal doses.”
Knowing what to look for
While fentanyl is not new, Hulse says the way it’s delivered has taken on different forms over the years. It started being trafficked as a powder about six years ago. Hulse says it posed a huge risk to law enforcement because just a small amount in the air or on your clothes was deadly.
In response, Narcan kits were made available to patrol deputies.
Lethal doses of fentanyl suppress the user’s ability to breathe. Narcan helps reverse that if the person is found in time. Without Narcan, Hulse says the victim will die.
More recently, law enforcement are seeing fentanyl in the form of “Dirty 30s,” which are designed to look like pharmaceutical pills.
“It’s not uncommon for our patrol deputies or police officers to come in contact with fake pharmaceutical pills. It happens almost weekly,” Hulse says.
Last month, Idaho State Police sent out a news release warning people about a surge in new fentanyl pills called “skittles” or “rainbow.” The pills are brightly-colored and have “M-30” imprinted on them. ISP is concerned traffickers might be trying to target these pills to children.
“It is unknown if this multi-colored fentanyl is targeted at young people, but parents must be aware that it is different than what law enforcement saw last year. We know it’s in our schools, and we also know dealers use social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram to advertise and coordinate deals with young people,” ISP writes in the news release.
As a former drug dealer, Mahan points out that traffickers aren’t necessarily trying to target kids but are more likely thinking of it as a way to disguise the drug.
But whether or not it’s targeting children, Hulse says traffickers modeling their drug to look like candy is concerning, and it demonstrates that everyone is affected by the rise in fentanyl.
“There is no such thing as anyone in the U.S. who isn’t affected by what’s going on. It reaches every corner of our nation,” Hulse says.
Hulse also cites a strong connection between opioids and human trafficking, saying it’s the same people behind both of them, and the border crisis is not helping.
“This idea that having an open border is somehow humane is wrong. By failing to secure our border and have rules on immigration … our federal government is failing us,” Hulse says.
‘We’re not going to arrest our way out of this’
Earlier this year, Hulse met with Gov. Brad Little and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo to discuss the uptick in fentanyl and discuss the data.
Scott Bedke, Idaho’s speaker of the House, is on the governor’s Operation Esto Perpetua task force, which works to combat this issue in the Gem State. In a conversation with EastIdahoNews.com last month, Bedke noted that while providing law enforcement with every available resource is important, “we’re not going to arrest our way out of this.”
“We’ve got to rehab the addicts, and prison is not the best place to get treated,” Bedke says. “We need to beef up our response … in community treatment centers.”
Hulse agrees, emphasizing that resources are available and educating people about them is crucial.
The DEA’s “One pill can kill” initiative is an educational tool Hulse recommends for parents and schools. He’s encouraging people to do their homework and discuss it with friends and family.
“If we can stop one overdose in our community, that’s of value. But we need to stop what’s occurring, and we need to recognize that we are being preyed upon by criminal drug organizations that are feeding this into our nation. It must be shut down,” he says.
Progress and reflection
Today, Mahan is proud to say he’s been clean for more than two years.
He’s one of the founding partners at Grave Robbers Coffee in downtown Idaho Falls, which raises awareness and funding for addiction recovery programs.
Earlier this summer, Mahan told us coffee was a valuable tool in connecting with people, which is an important step in overcoming an addiction.
“It’s kind of a proverb that those recovery meetings have crappy coffee. One of our goals is to put good coffee into those meetings,” Mahan said.
Giving back to others who have had similar struggles is a rewarding endeavor and helps him see how far he’s come. But Mahan is acutely aware that he’s still an addict, and he makes a conscious effort to avoid certain things to prevent a relapse.
During his journey of recovery, he’s watched numerous family members and friends succumb to their addiction. He cherishes being able to reconnect with family members that are still alive.
“My whole family is sober at this moment. Not one person in my immediate family smokes or drinks or does weed or pills. This is the first time we’ve ever all been around each other and had a wholesome memory,” he says. “That’s bittersweet.”