PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- Heroin laced with the synthetic opiate fentanyl is being blamed by officials for more than 80 deaths across the United States in recent weeks.
Officials say there have been at least 37 deaths in Maryland and 25 in Rhode Island, TheAlmagest.com medical news website reported Sunday. Another 22 deaths were reported in southwestern Pennsylvania, the (Jamestown, N.Y.) Post-Journal reported.
Fentanyl, a narcotic used to control chronic pain, is about 80 times more powerful than morphine, doctors say. Ellen Unterwald, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the Temple University School of Medicine, says even a small amount of fentanyl can be fatal.
The Post-Journal noted the Pennsylvania Health Department warned its local medical providers about the recent increase in fentanyl-related deaths.
"This product is being sold as heroin ... and produces an extremely potent opioid effect including coma and respiratory depression," the statement reads. "[This] can overcome the tolerance of chronic opioid abusers."
Michelle Spahn of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Buffalo office told the newspaper authorities can't tell if the fentanyl is pharmaceutical grade or being made clandestinely somewhere in the United States, Canada or Mexico.
"A witch doctor could have put them together," Spahn said. "There could be rat poison in them for all we know ... and this is what people are putting into their bodies."
The DEA said a fentanyl epidemic between April 2005 and March 2007 left 1,013 overdose deaths in its wake, the newspaper said.
Rick Huber, executive director of the Mental Health Association, said dealers sell heroin with higher concentrations of fentanyl to increase their clients' tolerance and desire, then lower the concentration to increase the demand.
The Cincinnati.com news website reported Saturday that law enforcement officials say some dealers are passing off fentanyl as heroin. Northern Kentucky Strike Force Director Bill Mark said it's the first time he has seen fentanyl being sold in place of heroin rather than blended with it.