DEA: Deaths from fentanyl-laced heroin surging
Article published in USA TODAY on March 18, 2015
A surge in overdose deaths around the country from heroin laced with the powerful narcotic drug fentanyl prompted the Drug Enforcement Administration to issue a nationwide alert on Wednesday.
"Drug incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said. She called it a "significant threat to public health and safety."
Fentanyl, a narcotic often used to ease extreme pain for patients in the final stages of diseases such as bone cancer, can be up to 100 times more powerful than morphine. It is the most potent opioid available for medical use. Doctors prescribe fentanyl in micrograms rather than larger milligrams.
Law enforcement seizures of illegal drugs containing fentanyl more than tripled between 2013 and 2014. The National Forensics Laboratory Information System, which collects data from state and local police labs, reported 3,344 fentanyl submissions in 2014, up from 942 in 2013.
DEA has also warned law enforcement to handle such seizures carefully because fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin or accidentally inhaled.
In New Jersey, state police have noted three spikes in fentanyl-related incidents since December 2013. The next summer, police responded to 58 incidents, including seven fatal overdoses in two coastal counties, says Lt. Juan Colon, assistant bureau chief of the information and intelligence support bureau at the regional operations intelligence center for the New Jersey State Police.
The most recent spate occurred from Jan.23 to Feb. 10 in Atlantic County, Colon said. In one 12-hour period, police responded to six overdoses, he said.
These drugs, opioids and opiates, are killing people, especially when you are buying them off the street. You don't know what you're getting," Colin said. "If you do drugs, you're taking a gamble."
Prosecutors in New York last week charged two men with dealing heroin laced with fentanyl after one of the alleged customers in Hamburg, N.Y., overdosed and died on Feb. 28. Police found text messages from the alleged dealer, John Haak,33, of Evans, N.Y., warning his customer to be careful with the heroin because of the fentanyl, court papers say.
In October, a grand jury in Massachusetts indicted three men from the state's North Shore for dealing heroin and fentanyl. The charges stemmed from an investigation following a rash of heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths in Salem a few months earlier.
Police reported several major fentanyl seizures in 2014, including a 26-pound seizure in California that was traced to a Mexican drug cartel.
Fentanyl-laced heroin caused an epidemic of overdoses between 2005 and 2007, when more than 1,000 people in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia died. The DEA traced the fentanyl to a single lab in Mexico, which was shut down.