Feb. 5, 2014 -- The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman from a suspected heroin overdose left investigators racing to figure out if the actor had been a victim of a new “bad batch” of heroin.
Heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl is suspected in at least 50 recent fatal overdoses in three states. Fentanyl is an opiate that is generally used intravenously in hospitals to treat pain. On the street it’s usually added to heroin to create a stronger high.
While officials did not find fentanyl in drug residue found at Hoffman’s Manhattan apartment, the autopsy was deemed inconclusive pending toxicology tests.
However, for state officials in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Maryland, the dangers related to this potentially dangerous batch of heroin remain very real and it is suspected of leading to more than 50 fatal overdoses in those three states.
In Pennsylvania at least 17 fatal overdoses in January were suspected to have been caused by the dangerous heroin blend. In Maryland at least 37 deaths, dating from last September, were linked to the drug.
According to WBSF-TV in Flint, Mich., the town has had four recent overdoses where fentanyl-laced heroin is suspected.
The main concern for officials is the fact that heroin users do not realize the dangers of fentanyl. Additionally, they usually don't understand the drug is in the heroin and instead are swayed to try that brand of heroin after hearing about the drug’s potency.
“They don’t’ know that fentanyl is in it and shoot it up and stop breathing, because they were unaware of the added punch in the narcotic,” said Ray Isackila, counselor and team leader of addiction treatment at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
Isackila said that fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin.
“Heroin with illicit fentanyl laced into it makes it stronger, cheaper and more desirable on the street,” said Isackila. “People hear about this new heroin or this super strong heroin that someone is selling,” and they want it.
While fentanyl is prescribed as an intravenous pain-reliever for patients with chronic pain, Isackila said the fentanyl used in heroin is illicitly manufactured rather than being taken from hospitals or pharmacies.
When a user injects fentanyl, like other opiates, it affects the central nervous system and brain, Isackila said, and since it is more powerful it leads to trouble breathing or they even stop breathing as the drug sedates the user.
While police and local officials, including the mayor of Pittsburgh, have been warning potential users to avoid the drug, especially in light of the danger, Isackila said the warnings could backfire.
“There’s an odd mindset in the drug addiction world if people have overdosed on this, they think I’ve got to get some of it," said Isackila. They say "they’ll just use a little -- a dangerous drug becomes more desirable to the addict on the street.”
A fentanyl-laced heroin called “China White” has periodically caused a rash of overdoses, but he did not know what “brand” or if there was a specific “brand” of heroin responsible for the latest overdoses.