Drugs Fentanyl and Heroin Suspected in Deaths of Two College Students

Authorities and law enforcement are still scratching their heads to explain to recent deaths of two students at the New College of Florida in Sarasota last week — including one victim from Boca Raton. Although it will take about six weeks for toxicology reports  to come in, Sarasota investigators are already linking the death to a possible new drug fad involving fentanyl, a drug that was initially suspected in the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

Last Saturday morning, 21-year-old Dylan Besser, a Boca Raton resident who was studying at the University of Central Florida, was found unresponsive in a dorm room at the New College. A day later, 18-year-old Julian Toomsen-Hall was also found unresponsive on campus. Both students died. 

What links the two deaths? Dr. Russell Vega, the Sarasota area chief examiner, told the Sarasota Herald Tribune there was a "reasonable likelihood” the deaths were linked either to heroin use, fentanyl, or a mixture of the two. Fentanyl is a prescription pain killer that packs about 50 to 80 times the punch of regular ol' heroin, according to a piece in Slate.

You might remember the drug from 2014, after the high profile overdoes of Oscar-winner Hoffman. At the time, there were rumors of a batch of "bad heroin" tied to deaths on the East Coast. This particular strand was rumored to be cut by fentanyl, creating a much more powerful substance. Users didn't realize they were messing with a turbo-version of the usual product, hence the overdoses. Actual evidence of this was a little spotty, and eventually investigators determined Hoffman's overdoes didn't contain the prescription padded. 

So why would the Sarasota medical examiner come out and tie the deaths to fentanyl? Vega told the Herald Tribune that the region has seen an uptick in overdoses tied to the drug, which means batches of "bad heroin" could be floating through the region? From the paper:

Dr. Russell Vega said there is an ongoing “epidemic or explosion” of overdose deaths in Sarasota and Manatee counties linked to heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opiate. In 2014, 57 deaths in Manatee County and 16 deaths in Sarasota County were caused by either drug or a mixture of both, according to Vega's “almost finalized numbers.” DeSoto County recorded one death in 2014.

“In most of the last decade our heroin deaths and our fentanyl deaths each were in the single digits for our entire three-county district,” said Vega, whose district includes Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. “We saw the heroin deaths increase first, then we saw an increase of heroin with fentanyl, and now we're seeing an increase of fentanyl by itself.”

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson