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Doctored Heroin Linked to 230 Fatal Drug Overdoses

July 25, 2008

By Megha Satyanarayana, Detroit Free Press

Jul. 25–More than 1,000 overdose deaths across the country — and 230 in Wayne County — 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 Free Press published a yearlong examination of the fentanyl overdose epidemic and its impact on the Detroit area.

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. Much of the story focused on Lauren Jolly, a Birmingham Groves High School student who died of an overdose in a Detroit drug house.

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 Administration, 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 bloodstream 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, which Wayne County health officials said they have been doing and providing for a while.

Soon after fentanyl was identified, the county formed a task force. It has about $50 million for drug abuse outreach and treatment, said Reid.

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.

Contact MEGHA SATYANARAYANA at 313-223-4544 or megha@freepress.com.

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