June 21, 2006

US Drug Users Warned of Deadly Tainted Heroin

By Jon Hurdle

PHILADELPHIA -- Heroin users should avoid the drug because some supplies have been tainted with a powerful painkiller blamed for hundreds of deaths nationwide since mid-April, law enforcement officials urged on Tuesday .

Heroin shipments in cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis have been found to contain fentanyl, a prescription narcotic 40 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Fentanyl is prescribed by physicians for anesthesia and pain control.

Authorities have been reporting fentanyl/heroin-related deaths for some months, but officials said there was a spike in overdoses in recent weeks, sparking the latest warnings.

The tainting of heroin with fentanyl -- whose brand names include Druagesic, Sublimaze, and Actiq -- has resulted in dozens of hospitalizations and deaths, especially in the mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions, officials said.

Drug users are attracted to fentanyl-laced heroin or cocaine because of the extra high that it promises them, said Lynne Abraham, Philadelphia District Attorney, at a news conference. "This is just an extra jolt for people who have become accustomed to heroin," she said.

Abraham said officials had considered whether holding the news conference to draw attention to the danger of fentanyl risked encouraging drug users to try tainted heroin, but they decided that the danger to the public justified it.

Use of the tainted drug appears to cut across social classes and locations, Abraham said. "It's urban and suburban, it's high-class, and it's quite mystifying," she said.

Along with the new high comes the danger of death, warned Patrick Meehan, U.S. Attorney for eastern Pennsylvania. "The push of a syringe is like pulling a trigger," he said.

Meehan said fentanyl-laced heroin was responsible for about 70 deaths in the Philadelphia area since April.

In Camden County, New Jersey, last weekend, there were 45 fentanyl-related overdoses, four of which were fatal, said Mike Cantor of the Camden County Prosecutors Office.

Drug users are especially at risk because the tainted drug has no street name, unlike "cheese" -- a mix of heroin and the over-the-counter analgesic Tylenol P.M. -- and so people who buy it may not know what they are getting, Abraham said.