By Rachel D’Oro Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The synthetic opioid fentanyl is an escalating problem in Alaska, and it’s leading to a significant increase in deaths, state authorities said Tuesday.

“It is a scary problem,” Alaska State Trooper Capt. Michael Duxbury said at a press briefing on the state’s opioid crisis. “Fentanyl is by far the biggest concern.”

Jay Butler, the state’s chief medical officer, said 2017 statistics have not been finalized, but there were at least two dozen fentanyl-related deaths, compared with five or six such deaths the previous year. Altogether, opioids were involved in 96 of the state’s 128 overdose deaths last year.

Fentanyl is being introduced as a cutting agent for heroin, creating lethal doses, Duxbury said. There is no evidence the drug has been cut into cocaine or methamphetamine as is being done in the Lower 48, he said.

Duxbury noted that an extremely small amount of fentanyl can kill. Authorities recently seized 25 grams of the black market drug, which he said has a potential to kill 12,500 people.

Duxbury says dealing with the state’s opioid crisis presents challenges amid state budget cuts, trooper staff shortages and criminal justice reform.

Opioids like heroin and other illegal drugs manufactured elsewhere are being brought to the state by gangs and Mexican drug cartels, according to Duxbury, commander of the statewide drug enforcement unit. His office works with federal law enforcement agencies and other partners, such as tribal entities, mental health professionals and schools, as well as newer additions such as rotary clubs and airlines, to stem the influx of drugs.

Last year, Gov. Bill Walker declared rampant opioid abuse a public health disaster and proposed spending existing federal grants on a multiyear program for distribution of naloxone, a drug that can help prevent overdose.

Rather than just extending the declaration for another year, state lawmakers approved allowing a standing medical order for the naloxone program through June 2021.

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