Deadly heroin in circulation kills 6 locally

July 6, 2013
Olympus Digital Media

A person with good judgment might assume heroin addicts would steer away from stamp bags of the drug known on the streets to be laced with a powerful narcotic responsible for a string of recent overdose deaths.

But, the insanity of heroin addiction is best described when a heroin addict knows a certain bag of the drug is killing people, said Erich Curnow, a program specialist at the Washington County Drug and Alcohol Commission.

“The mentality of a heroin addict is, ‘I’m going to get some of that,’” Curnow said last week, after a warning was issued that a narcotic-laced heroin has killed an alarming number of drug users in Washington and Allegheny counties.

In all, 50 people have died in Pennsylvania this year from overdose deaths after taking fake heroin or heroin cut with the painkiller fentanyl or its derivative, acetyl fentanyl, on the heels of a federal investigation that revealed the deadly mix had slipped into the United States from Canada, said Christine Cronkright, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania governor’s office.

Six such deaths have been documented since May in Washington County and rulings are pending toxicology test results on as many as a dozen other recent suspected heroin overdose deaths, a spokeswoman for Coroner Tim Warco said. Another 15 heroin deaths linked to fentanyl have been recorded in Allegheny County, Cronkright said. Greene County Coroner Greg Rohanna said he has had some heroin overdose deaths, but none related to fentanyl.

Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs has issued a warning about fentanyl having been introduced to the heroin trade after it asked all coroners in the state to review their opioid overdose death cases and found the spike in such deaths.

The federal Centers for Disease Control issued its own alert upon learning the drug supply had killed 14 people this year in Rhode Island, Cronkright stated in a news release.

Pennsylvania asked for federal assistance after finding pockets of fentanyl-laced heroin, first in Lebanon County, where there was one such death this year and five nonfatal overdoses from the narcotic.

Fentanyl is a prescription drug used to relieve severe or chronic pain, particularly in cancer patients, or as a last-resort pain medication. It’s distributed as a skin patch, lozenge, pill, shot, a film that dissolves in the mouth or intravenously.

As a recreational drug, acetyl fentanyl often resembles heroin. If a heroin user mistakes fentanyl for heroin and takes too much of the drug, the user is at high risk of a fatal overdose. During the last major fentanyl overdose outbreak in 2006, there were 269 deaths in Philadelphia alone, Cronkright stated.

The deaths come at a time when Washington County has been experiencing an alarming increase in the number of drug overdose deaths, having recorded 40 last year and 46 in 2011. That compares to just two in 1992.

Curnow said the county has seen the increase because it is on the border of West Virginia, a state with one of the worst prescription drug addiction problems, and Allegheny County, which has a high number of residents over age 50 who suffer pain and are given narcotics legally by physicians. Those drugs, including oxycontin, can be highly addictive in the wrong hands and lead users to heroin when they can’t renew their supplies of them.

“The prescription pain pills flow freely here,” Curnow said.

He said he’s been lobbying Pennsylvania lawmakers to enact House Bill 317, which would create an prescription drug monitoring system like those in other states that alert physicians and pharmacists about patients who “doctor shop” and spend cash to get illegal supplies of narcotics.

Major dealers, Curnow said, are known to slip fentanyl into their heroin that isn’t pure in order to increase its strength without the slightest care someone might die from their supplies.

“The enterprise wants the best on the street. The trade-off is someone might die,” he said.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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