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Doctored Heroin Linked to Fatal Drug Overdoses, CDC Reports

July 24, 2008

DETROIT _ More than 1,000 overdose deaths across the country were linked to illegally made fentanyl, a powerful, prescription-only painkiller mixed with heroin and other drugs for street use, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last year, the Detroit Free Press published a yearlong examination of the fentanyl overdose epidemic.

Free Press reporters tracked down chemist Ricardo Valdez Torres, who made fentanyl in Mexico. His fentanyl moved north and was mixed into heroin sold to people of all walks of life.

The CDC report, which focused on fatal overdoses from April 2005 to March 2007, also links the fentanyl deaths to the Mexican lab. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, 1 gram of pure fentanyl could create up to 8,000 doses to cut an illegal drug. At 50 to 80 times stronger than morphine, a tiny amount can kill, said Wayne County Mental Health Medical Director Dr. Michele Reid.

Fentanyl is prescribed in skin patches to treat chronic pain. But if snorted or injected, the sudden burst of the drug into the blood stream can lead to breathing failure.

The CDC study calls for better public health efforts to report drug overdoses and more information and treatment options for users.

There is no national standard for testing and reporting, said Wayne County Medical Examiner Dr. Carl Schmidt. That makes it difficult to know exactly how many people overdosed or died from fentanyl-laced drugs.

“People don’t think of drug abuse as a public health issue,” he said.

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