Heroin mix tied to dozens of
May 5, 2006
Leinwand, USA TODAY
potent heroin laced with a powerful painkiller has killed
more than two-dozen people and sent more than 300 to
hospitals across the eastern USA during the past three
weeks, local and federal officials say.
agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration have joined
police in cities from the East Coast to Chicago in
scrambling to find the source of the deadly concoction. It
surfaced in Chicago on April 13 and has been linked to 11
deaths there since then, police spokeswoman Monique Bond
says. Chicago paramedics treated 144 overdoses from April 13
to April 27, says Donald Walsh, assistant deputy fire
commissioner for emergency medical services.
Chicago officials began reporting a surge in heroin-related
deaths and overdoses, authorities in Camden, N.J.;
Wilmington, Del.; Salisbury, Md.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and
several other communities did, too.
Eleven deaths since April 19; 144 overdoses reported
April 13-27; 24 overdoses reported on April 19,
including 15 people who were found unconscious in a park
on the South Side.
•Camden, N.J.: Seven deaths since April
14; 51 overdoses reported at Cooper University Hospital
April 20-28; in southern New Jersey, 75 overdoses
reported since mid-April.
•LaSalle County, Ill.: One death April
28 linked to heroin pending toxicology tests.
•Harrisburg, Pa.: Two deaths, about 36
overdoses reported in the area since mid-April.
•Philadelphia: One death, eight
overdoses reported since April 22.
•Rockford, Ill.: Two deaths, nearly a
dozen overdoses reported since April 19.
•Salisbury, Md.: One death, eight
overdoses reported since April 20.
•Delaware: Five deaths, 18 overdoses
during the past month.
Source: USA TODAY research
culprit in many of the cases appears to be heroin mixed with
fentanyl, a potent form of synthetic morphine that is used
to treat extreme pain. Veterinarians use one formulation of
it to immobilize large animals. The mixing of such a
powerful, costly drug with heroin for street sales is very
unusual, says Mary Cooper, chief of congressional and public
affairs for the DEA.
sold illegally in the USA typically is diluted, or "cut,"
with common household substances such as sugar, flour,
quinine or starch. Such fillers help drug traffickers boost
recent deaths and overdoses have dramatically illustrated
addicts' vulnerability to distributors who mix illegal
drugs, as well as the broad reach of the drug rings that
move heroin from Mexico and Colombia to cities across the
USA, Cooper says. She notes that a distributor with 1
kilogram of heroin — about 2.2 pounds — can produce 25,000
doses that typically sell on the street for $10 each.
go everywhere and anywhere," she says.
1% of the U.S. population used heroin in 2004, according to
the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Heroin accounts
for about 8% of drug-related emergency room visits,
according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, which collects
data from hospitals for the U.S. government.
generally is diluted by midlevel distributors in the USA,
says Douglas Collier, a senior agent for the DEA's New
Jersey division. Distributors may dilute a kilogram of
heroin once or twice before packaging it for street-level
dealers, he says, and a local dealer may cut it again before
packing it into individual doses.
are careful not to dilute the heroin too much for fear of
losing sales, Collier says. "Customers will go where the
unclear why dealers might have mixed fentanyl with heroin.
Cooper says it might have been part of a marketing ploy to
create a powerful batch of heroin that would attract
Chicago last week, police got a hint of many addicts'
desperation when officers began passing out handbills in
communities where overdoses had occurred. The handbills were
intended to steer addicts away from those locations.
Instead, scores of addicts showed up, looking for a dose of
the ultra-powerful mix, Bond says. "We were basically
providing free advertising for the dealers."
Addicts 'dropping like flies'
areas hit by the recent wave of heroin-related death and
has had seven deaths since April 14, an usual surge in a
city that had 40 heroin-related deaths in all of 2005.
local hospitals have been getting a steady stream of people,
well above the norm," says Bill Shralow, spokesman for the
Camden County Prosecutor's Office. "Some samples have had
fentanyl. We're continuing to investigate."
at Cooper University Hospital have been treating about nine
overdoses a day, says spokeswoman Linda Michael. From April
20 to April 28, they tallied 51 cases.
Marcus, executive director of the New Jersey Poison
Information and Education System, says state officials
counted 75 non-fatal overdoses from April 13 to April 27,
far above normal.
addicts are dropping like flies," he says. "This shows how
dangerous this stuff is."
the Harrisburg area, there have been two deaths and
about three dozen non-fatal overdoses, city spokesman Randy
King says. In a 24-hour period beginning April 18, the city
had 10 overdoses.
put out an alert that day, King says. "We told people you're
playing Russian roulette with your life if you use this
stuff. It made no difference."
Harrisburg usually has no more than one heroin overdose a
month, King says.
Rockford, Ill., a city of 151,000 people 80 miles west
of Chicago, two people died of heroin overdoses last month,
and nearly a dozen people had non-fatal overdoses, says
Dominic Iasparro, deputy chief of detectives for Rockford
police. Authorities are awaiting toxicology results to see
whether the heroin contains fentanyl, but they have noticed
a spike in overdoses, he says.
has had five deaths and 18 non-fatal overdoses in the
last month, says Delaware State Police Sgt. Melissa Zebley.
one person has died and eight others have overdosed in the
Salisbury, Md., area since April 20 on what was believed to
be fentanyl-laced heroin or straight fentanyl, says Judith
Sensenbrenner of the Wicomico County Health Department.
"Certainly we have heroin use here," she says, "but we don't
tend to see that number of overdoses."