Is Your Heroin Even Heroin? Actually, It’s Probably Fentanyl

By Zachary Siegel 06/18/15

New reports are showing that more of today’s heroin supply is being cut with the potent analgesic.

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The opiate overdose epidemic just got a shade darker in New Jersey as new data showed overdose deaths related to fentanyl, an opioid 15 times more powerful than heroin, tripled in 2014.

In 2013, 49 people had fentanyl in their system postmortem but that number spiked to 143 people in 2014, according to state data. Whereas most narcotic opiates are measured in milligrams, fentanyl is so powerful it must be measured in micrograms, i.e., one-millionth of a gram, making it one of the most potent analgesics ever created.

This data has law enforcement and public health officials in New Jersey worried about the possibility of even more people dying from heroin-laced fentanyl.

Steven Marcus, director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers said, "Fentanyl is just so damn powerful that it is extremely difficult to control. You can't just casually mix it with heroin, or you can, but it's often a death sentence."

"This just throws another curveball into things because there's no quality control out there. When you buy a bag you have no idea what's in it."

What makes fentanyl even more insidious is the fact that unlike most additives used to cut heroin, it is colorless and odorless. Users simply do not know what is in their tiny bag of heroin, which is a risk factor contributing more and more to die of an overdose.

In Camden, N.J., there have been 55 overdose deaths this year involving heroin-laced fentanyl, four of which occurred in the month of June, according to state officials who have issued warnings about which brands of heroin carry the lethal opioid.

It’s widely known that heroin users flock to those specific brands because they’re eager to find the best high out there.

In a 2008 report the CDC noted, "One gram of pure fentanyl can be cut into approximately 7,000 doses for street sale,"

Furthermore, it’s easy to manufacture fentanyl and there are recipes available online to make it. Other websites sell cheap acetyl-fentanyl analogs, which is also being found in heroin across the United States.

The incidence of fentanyl-laced heroin stretches far beyond Camden, where the potent opioid is being found in heroin all over the East Coast.

It’s possible a more technologically advanced era of opioid manufacturing is upon us, where once agriculture was essential to produce morphine derived from the bulbs of poppy plants, powerful synthetic opioids are being produced in labs all over the world, creating ever more lethal supplies of heroin.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.