Gene and Sue Murray, on Wednesday in Brentwood at a...

Gene and Sue Murray, on Wednesday in Brentwood at a law enforcement summit on fentanyl, talk about their daughter Chelsey, who fatally overdosed from the synthetic opioid mixed with heroin in 2022. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Fatal fentanyl overdoses in Suffolk declined more than 8% last year, though a powerful animal sedative that can rot human flesh — found in the autopsies of an increasing number of victims — has sparked new concerns, law enforcement officials said Wednesday at the county's inaugural fentanyl summit.

In 2023, there were an estimated 366 fatal fentanyl overdoses in Suffolk, down 8.2% from 399 confirmed deaths in 2022, said Suffolk County District Attorney Raymond Tierney as he joined with other law enforcement officials, lawmakers and the families of overdose victims in Brentwood. Final overdose numbers for 2023 are still being confirmed by the medical examiner's office.

“It's trending in the right direction but still it's not nearly enough,” Tierney said. 

Dr. Amy Rapkiewicz, Suffolk's deputy chief medical examiner, said about 80% of fatal overdoses last year involved a combination of at least two drugs — primarily cocaine and fentanyl, a cheap synthetic opioid. Overdose deaths involving heroin, once responsible for a majority of accidental overdoses, are nearly “nonexistent,” she said.

Fentanyl overdose statistics from Nassau County in 2023 were not immediately available.

Combating the fentanyl scourge, Tierney said, has been further complicated by Xylazine, a non-opioid drug also known as “tranq” that's used for sedating horses and other animals. The drug was found in 18% of fatal overdoses in the county.

Drug dealers use Xylazine, which is not classified by the federal government as a controlled substance, as a “cutting agent” to mix with other drugs, such as fentanyl, to increase profits, experts said. People who inject drug mixtures with xylazine can develop severe wounds, including necrosis, experts say.

“Fentanyl is the most lethal, most dangerous, most addictive drug ever made,” said Frank Tarentino, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office. “When you add Xylazine to it, it becomes even deadlier. This is the greatest threat we've ever faced in drug law enforcement.”

A bill designating Xylazine as a controlled substance and criminalizing its possession or sale by non-veterinary professionals is among other pieces of related legislation Suffolk officials are advocating for in Albany this year. 

One key bill would allow prosecutors to charge dealers who provide illicit drugs that result in the death of a user with “drug-induced” manslaughter. Currently, these dealers can only be charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance.

The bill, called Chelsey’s Law, is named for the daughter of Eugene and Susan Murray, who died in August 2022 at the age of 31 after using fentanyl-laced heroin. The dealer who sold the drugs to Chelsey Murray was sentenced last month to 10 years in prison.

“This bill isn't just for my daughter,” Eugene Murray said Wednesday. “This is for all the other families out there who lost loved ones.”

Fentanyl, which is trafficked into the United States primarily from China and Mexico, was responsible for most of the nation’s more than 100,000 fatal overdoses in 2023, according to federal data.

Suffolk Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said inmates are becoming increasingly creative in smuggling fentanyl into county jails, including in books ordered through Amazon, melted onto legal documents and in the diapers of newborn babies.

“It risks the lives of my staff and the other inmates who may not want to be part of it,” Toulon said at the summit.

Linda Ventura, of Holtsville, whose son Thomas died in 2012 of a heroin overdose at the age of 21, said while enhanced punishments for dealers are important, drug prevention is critical to solving the crisis.

“There's a whole population of people that are struggling and suffering on the streets of Long Island,” said Ventura, who founded Thomas’ Hope, a foundation that promotes drug awareness and prevention. “So if we don't start fixing the kindergartners of today, 20 years from now we'll be standing in a much bigger problem.”

With Lorena Mongelli

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