TBILISI -- When Tedo left his two friends after a night hanging out at their Tbilisi apartment, he never thought it would be for the last time.
The night before, the three had taken a drug, which they thought was an amphetamine, commonly prescribed to treat Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but also widely used recreationally.
Instead of catching a buzz, Tedo, short for Theodor, became ill, vomiting before passing out, an acquaintance told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.
The next morning, he awoke, still groggy and ill. He slipped quietly out of the apartment, deciding not to rouse his buddies. It would be the last time he ever saw them.
A few days later, on September 20, the two young men were found dead of a suspected drug overdose by police in their rented apartment in the Mukhiani district of the capital, Tbilisi.
It appears that it was not an isolated case. An NGO providing help to drug users in Georgia told RFE/RL that up to 10 people have died in the Caucasus state of some 3.7 million people in the last six weeks after taking club drugs, most likely Ecstasy or MDMA (its powder form) laced with fentanyl, an opioid that can be deadly even in tiny amounts.
"In the last year, the situation with fentanyl has become catastrophic," explains Temo Khatiashvili, head of Mandala, the NGO that provides information and other help mainly to casual club-drug users, namely clubbers who use such substances to boost energy and euphoria levels during a night of partying. The NGO also helps drug addicts as well, including providing them with clean needles.
A 2020 study found that much of the illegal drugs trade in Georgia was transacted on the darknet, often funded with cryptocurrencies. In particular, the study by the Caucasus Research Resource Center-Georgia found that Ecstasy tablets bought on the cryptocurrency website Matanga are often at "dangerously high dosages."
As Khatiashvili sits at his desk, cluttered with papers, two men in their 30s, all clad in black, enter Mandala's cramped offices.
"Hi. We saw your [Facebook] post and wanted to get a fentanyl check. We're already so scared," one of the men blurts out.
Amid the observed uptick in drug-related deaths in Georgia, Mandala has launched a social media campaign targeting casual users and imploring them to be extra careful and check to make sure any drugs they take are not laced with fentanyl.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used to treat severe pain, usually from cancer. It is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. The drug can be acquired with a prescription and, in the United States, it has been linked to thousands of deaths. In 2017, then-President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a "public health emergency."
The U.S. Department of Justice said in September that fentanyl is "the deadliest drug threat facing this nation," with 66 percent of drug deaths in 2021 attributed to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
Drug dealers often cut their powdered drugs or press their pills with fentanyl to save costs and increase their product's potency. Mostly originating in China, Mexico, and India, fentanyl is partly responsible for an uptick in opioid overdoses worldwide.
"This saved you," the one man says to his silent companion, pointing to a vial of naloxone, a life-saving and increasingly available medication that can reverse the effects of opioids.
The man had been on a respirator in a hospital in Tbilisi for two days after ingesting what he thought was MDMA at a club with friends some two weeks earlier. But instead of putting him in the party mood, the drug caused him to lose consciousness and stop breathing just a few hours after taking it.
"We had naloxone right there. As soon as we administered it, he opened his eyes in 15 seconds. We thought it was fentanyl [that had caused his reaction]," explained the man, who requested that his name not be used.
"I'll give you more [naloxone]," Khatiashvili tells the men, as he prepares to test the MDMA powder they brought with them. He carefully taps out some of it from a plastic bag into a plastic cup containing a testing stick that can quickly detect the presence of fentanyl.
"A trace means that by taking it they are already playing with death," explains Khatiashvili. "In the last week alone, we have tested 70 to 80 substances…. We didn't find a single one that didn't contain fentanyl."
In this case, the test comes up positive. The MDMA powder the two men brought is laced with the deadly opioid.
In Georgia, fentanyl isn't particularly hard to get. It can be ordered on the dark web -- a limited-access computer network that enables users to protect their anonymity -- and delivered through the mail in the form of powder or tablets.
The yellowish substance is then smoked, sniffed, injected, or transformed into a tablet. Fentanyl can be lethal from as little as 2 milligrams, equivalent to a few grains of sand.
While fentanyl has wreaked health havoc in the United States, the situation in Europe is not nearly as dire -- at least not yet, experts say.
Doctors are careful not to overprescribe opioids such as fentanyl to patients who don't need them, Paul Griffiths, scientific director of the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), told AFP in 2020.
In Georgia, data on drug-related deaths is not available. In 2020, the Caucasus Research Resource Center-Georgia did find that drug users have spent the equivalent of over $1.5 million buying illicit narcotics on the Matanga website between February and August 2020, concluding that "this figure is substantial, exceeding monthly dark web drug revenue for Spain and Belgium combined."
Georgia is a transit county -- although not a major one -- and market for synthetic drugs, "with MDMA and amphetamine being the most common drugs in the country after cannabis," according to the U.S.-funded Global Organized Crime Index.
At its office in Tbilisi, the NGO Mandala is able to test all commonly used club drugs -- besides Ecstasy, that usually includes ketamine, LSD, and cocaine -- to determine whether it is actually the substance the user thinks it is. It can also test for the presence of fentanyl but not its concentration.
The two men said the price was 280 Georgian lari (about $100) for 1 gram of MDMA, the powder form of Ecstasy. They said they bought a total of 13-14 grams, for about 10 people.
"I have it all and I'm going to throw it all away," says one of them before they both leave the office.
Drug laws are tough in largely conservative Georgia, where the purchase or possession of illegal narcotics is punishable by up to six years in prison. The penalty for drug dealing is harsher, with up to 20 years in prison possible.
Georgia has one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe, according to a 2015 survey by the University of Lausanne for the Council of Europe, with roughly every third person in jail in Georgia detained for a drug offense.
Like other NGOs working with drug users, Mandala opposes the Georgian authorities' focus on punishing users, advocating instead that more be done to educate people about the effects of drugs.
The NGO was established in 2017 in the wake of the death of a 22-year-old woman at a music festival. She was one of several at the event who became gravely ill after apparently taking laced drugs. The incident shocked Georgia and led to even louder calls to ease what many feel are the country's draconian drug laws.
Today, Mandala staff make the rounds at music festivals and nightclubs in Tbilisi and elsewhere in Georgia, offering to test people's drugs to check if they have been laced. They are also on hand to help anyone who may have overdosed and needs immediate medical attention.
"We go and see if anyone needs help if they have an overdose. It's also important to help people cope with possible anxiety and psychological trauma. And most importantly, we give them information so that they can use drugs with as little harm as possible," explains Khatiashvili, stressing they provide a service not available elsewhere.
"No medical workers can do this. They can perform artificial respiration on someone who's having a heart attack. But we are doing things so that it doesn't come to that," he says.
As he talks, the door creaks open again and a young woman sporting a nose piercing and crop top comes in. Declining to give her name, she tells RFE/RL that she uses club drugs once a month or so for fun and relaxation and is always careful because she buys drugs on the dark web and has no idea where they come from. However, as word has spread about deaths linked to fentanyl-laced drugs, she says she is being extra careful. She is at Mandala -- an organization she volunteered for in the past -- to get some substances she recently bought checked.
That's something Khatiashvili would like more casual drug users to do, but he said many fear they will be stopped and frisked by police who will discover the drugs they are hoping to test.
"That's something I can't guarantee and something I can't tell others," Khatiashvili says.
"However, we should be able to because that way we would reach more people," he adds, illustrating his point with a mock exchange: "There's fentanyl in this…. Then I won't take it, of course."
On average, about 10 to 15 people visit Mandala's office every day, according to Khatiashvili. More are helped by volunteers at nightclubs and festivals.
To Khatiashvili, the NGO is making a difference to Georgia's growing drug scene. He says that the police are incapable of coping with the problem: "Let alone the clubs, the police aren't able to handle the [drug scene], where the dealers are selling poison."