COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Eli Weinstock was a funny, larger-than-life 20-year-old who was “thriving” during his sophomore year at American University. He loved to play tennis, cook chicken teriyaki and produce homemade films starring his siblings.

Unbeknownst to him, the Bexley High School graduate encountered fentanyl in the final moments of his life, his mother Beth Weinstock said. He died in his Washington, D.C. residence in March 2021, falling victim to what his mother called the greatest public health crisis of his generation.

“He was doing really well – he was thriving,” Weinstock said. “And we had just seen him 10 days before he died.”

Eli’s story is not uncommon. More than 5,100 Ohioans died in 2021 alone from an unintentional drug overdose, nearly 80% of which involved fentanyl, according to state Department of Health records. Last year’s data, though not yet finalized, is on track to fall just below that number.

Franklin County prosecutor Laurie Arsenault said fentanyl has altered the landscape of drug-related prosecutions, and alarmingly, the synthetic opioid has crept into nearly 28% of Ohio’s drug supply in 2022 – the largest proportion in state history, according to a Harm Reduction Ohio analysis of state crime lab data.

“I think it’s safe to assume – and I think we should all assume – that something may contain fentanyl,” Arsenault said. “And it’s just getting scarier.”

2022: Most pervasive year for fentanyl in Ohio

Unlike other opioids, fentanyl is cheap, powerful in tiny quantities, and easily transportable thanks to its compact form, said Dennis Cauchon, a former USA Today reporter who founded the nonprofit Harm Reduction Ohio in 2017 to advocate for human-rights-centered drug policy. 

Fentanyl is used to treat severe pain in hospital settings, from procedures like colonoscopies to diseases like cancer. But outside of the medical market, Cauchon said, it is generally not safe because it’s nearly impossible to control the size of the dose.

“A little mistake can cause a big effect on a person’s life,” he said.

With nearly 28% of Ohio’s drug supply contaminated with fentanyl in 2022 – up from just 0.3% in 2013, according to Harm Reduction Ohio’s analysis – Arsenault said the great majority of illicit drugs seized in bulk by law enforcement contain some element of the potent opioid.

In recent years, she said the prosecutor’s office has seen an uptick in the number of children who are exposed to fentanyl, leaving law enforcement to increasingly deliver baby bottles, pacifiers and sippy cups to state crime labs for testing.

“Every (drug) search warrant, there’s fentanyl involved in some way, some fashion,” Arsenault said. “We are seeing a lot of it even in blenders and mixing bowls, so that is pure evidence that people are manufacturing it and making it in their kitchens.”

Because fentanyl doesn’t mix well, Arsenault said a batch of pills or powder from the same dealer might leave some of its users unharmed while others experience a fatal overdose. 

In May last year, three Ohio State University students were hospitalized after ingesting what is believed to be fake Adderall pills laced with fentanyl. Two of the students died, and the third was eventually released from the hospital.

“It’s almost like when you make a dozen chocolate chip cookies,” Arsenault said. “You might have some cookies that have 10 or 12 chocolate chips in them, and then another cookie that has one or two.”

How are fentanyl laced-drugs, their dealers penalized in Franklin County?

Witnessing the proliferation of fentanyl as a prosecutor, Arsenault said she often ponders the million-dollar question: Why would drug dealers and manufacturers put a lethal substance in their supply given its propensity to fatally poison their buyers?

“It’s like any other business, (customers) give feedback, and some of the drug users are telling the drug suppliers, ‘Your drugs are poor quality; they’re not strong enough,’” she said. “As a drug dealer, unfortunately, their goal is to get the highest amount of potency without killing a person in order to get the highest number of sales.”

In Franklin County, those accused of fentanyl-related drug crimes are typically subject to five types of charges: involuntary manslaughter, for fatal overdoses; corrupting another with drugs, for non-fatal overdoses; child endangerment, if a minor is harmed by exposure to the opioid; and illegal manufacturing of drugs and drug trafficking, if there’s evidence someone laced fentanyl in another drug, Arsenault said.

The investigations are extensive, and it often takes law enforcement months or even years of digging to establish a timeline of the overdose before charges are filed, she said.

Since Jan. 1, the Columbus Division of Police has responded to more than 140 overdose deaths, though it’s unclear how many involved fentanyl, according to division spokesperson Melanie Amato. Officers open an investigation into a fatal overdose if at least two of the following criteria are met at the crime scene:

  • Witnesses or individuals with information about the drug supplier and are willing to speak with investigators
  • Witnesses or individuals that were present during the overdose and can be located and interviewed by investigators
  • A suspect is present
  • Presence of illegal controlled substances (heroin, opiate, prescription pills) that can be analyzed for DNA that might link the seller to the deceased
  • The deceased person’s cell phone, or a cell phone used by them, is available for law enforcement to seize and hold
  • Possible video surveillance of the crime scene area

From there, Arsenault said the prosecutor’s office coordinates with police on scene to collect any evidence with DNA traces of the drug: paraphernalia, clothing, mixing bowls, and baby bottles. Potential crime scene footage – like at a gas station where the drug deal may have occurred – is obtained, along with cell phone history and a coroner’s report.

“The timeline is very crucial because we want to really retrace the steps of the deceased person that has overdosed to see what the timeline was, obviously who gave them the drugs, who gave that person the drugs, and sometimes it’s two or three people down the line,” Arsenault said.

Prosecutors will then sit down for a panel review to talk about the available evidence and whether it warrants the filing of criminal charges, she said. In 2022, four of the 14 involuntary manslaughter charges involved suspects also accused of corrupting another with drugs, according to Franklin County Common Pleas Court records.

Nearly 600 counts of drug trafficking were filed against 245 people in Franklin County in 2022, according to court records. Another 29 counts of illegal drug manufacturing – including one against a suspect also accused of involuntary manslaughter – were filed. It is unclear how many involved fentanyl.

“The ultimate goal is always to go up that supply chain,” Arsenault said. “We want to know and to determine who is manufacturing and selling this fatal drug – not just who handed it to the deceased victim.”

In Eli's case, Weinstock said Washington, D.C. police said they investigated leads into the 20-year-old's overdose death to no avail. Searches of his cell phone and interviews with his friends came up dry as to where or how he ingested the fentanyl, she said.

Could criminalization be counterintuitive?

Reflecting on past U.S. policies surrounding the War on Drugs, Cauchon cautioned that criminalizing fentanyl could be a slippery slope into the proliferation of more potent opiates – like fentanyl’s even deadlier analog, carfentanil – across the country.

“The drug war created the fentanyl epidemic, just like previously a few years ago it created the heroin epidemic by cracking down on OxyContin,” Cauchon said. “(They’re) unintended consequences, but they’re real consequences nonetheless, and that’s why we’re having 5,000 deaths a year in Ohio.”

Oftentimes, Cauchon said the dealers and manufacturers of fentanyl-laced drugs are drug users themselves who cut their supply to more effectively feed their own addiction while bringing in the cash flow to afford future fentanyl. No dealer intends to kill their customers, many of whom they personally know and are also in the throes of opioid use disorder, he argued.

Given the heartbreak and anguish experienced by Ohioans whose lives were upended by an accidental overdose death, Cauchon said he never tells families what to think – including those who see the legal system as an avenue for justice. “Their own grief is their own grief,” he said.

“But the important part is that they weren’t bad people because they were drug users,” Cauchon said. “Not just the wonderful Ohio State kids, but all the 5,000 deaths of every racial group. They’re all beautiful people, and they’re stigmatized as evil drug users or this, but they’re not. Everyone’s a drug user, and everyone’s a beautiful person.”

Casting people with felony drug convictions “is nothing but bullets of harm,” Cauchon said, as that mark on one’s record can have damaging effects – housing, employment, custody issues – that prevent them from effectively overcoming their addiction.

Arsenault said the narrative has changed in Franklin County courtrooms, too. Recognizing the barriers of a felony record, the Franklin County Municipal Court adopted its h.a.r.t., or helping achieve recovery together, court in 2014 – a two-year specialized docket program for people experiencing an opioid use disorder and facing lower-level felonies.

Participants are linked with a provider for counseling and substance abuse treatments while checking in with the judge, attorneys and drug court coordinators assigned to their case, Arsenault said. If the program is successfully completed, their felony charges are wiped clean.

“We’ve been able to watch so many families be reunited; we have linked people with such great sober support systems; we help them link up with employment opportunities and education opportunities as well,” she said. “It’s really amazing to watch the path and the journey and to see these wonderful people going back to being productive members of their community.”

Fentanyl test strips for everyone

Six months after Eli died, Weinstock said she and her daughter Olivia launched BirdieLight, a non-profit dedicated to educating high school and college students about the dangers of fentanyl – one of the first of its kind in Ohio.

When talking to college-aged students, Weinstock said she learned about 50% of them aren’t aware that counterfeit pills, like fake Adderall and OxyContin, can contain fentanyl. Similarly, she said 50% don’t know cocaine can contain fentanyl, despite the fact it made up 18% of Ohio’s cocaine supply in 2022.

“The knowledge gap between what young people know and what’s out in the illicit drug community – that gap is pretty large, and that’s what we’re trying to close,” Weinstock said.

Their goal is to place a fentanyl test strip in the hands of every high school and college-aged person in America, she said, from central Ohio school districts to Eli’s alma mater in Washington, D.C. A few weeks ago, BirdieLight launched its “BirdieBox,” a high-school focused curriculum that guides health teachers in lessons about the fentanyl epidemic.

“Our goal, overall, is to make this conversation so commonplace that we talk about it like we talk about tobacco safety or seatbelts or drunk driving,” she said. “This just needs to be at this point, based on the staggering statistics.”

As for the origin of the nonprofit's name, Weinstock said she and Olivia recalled how Eli and his eighth-grade friends called themselves the “Birdies.” Notes of “We miss you Birdie, we love you Birdie,” were even sprawled across letters at Eli’s memorial service.

Its logo, a yellow bird wearing a coal miner's hat, symbolizes their efforts to be the canary in the coal mine and shine a light on the fentanyl crisis, Weinstock said, equipping young people with the ability to test their drugs and the knowledge about the deadly opioid’s effects.

Without initially realizing it, smack dab in the middle of BirdieLight is Eli’s very own name, she said.

“We lead our efforts completely with Eli in the middle of everything we do,” she said. “He’s always with us.”