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Maryland Drug Officials Worry Over A Deadly Mixture


Tomorrow in Maryland, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration will sit down with other law enforcement groups to talk through some big questions. Tainted heroin has recently killed at least 50 people across several states, and they want to find out where it's coming from. The heroin is laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl. While the DEA races to find the drug's source, NPR's Allison Keyes reports community groups are scrambling to warn addicts of the danger.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Since September, 37 Maryland residents have overdosed on the fentanyl-heroin mix and it's been linked to 22 deaths last month alone in Pennsylvania. There have also been deaths reported in New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York. People who work with addicts, like Chris Serio-Chapman, are worried.

CHRIS SERIO-CHAPMAN: This is very scary for everyone.

KEYES: Chapman directs a needle exchange program at the Baltimore City Health Department and says clients who come to its vans that travel around the city are looking for tips to stay safe.

SERIO-CHAPMAN: The clientele that we're dealing with are incredibly well educated in terms of knowing what's going on on the street and their community. So they come to us looking for answers.

KEYES: Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate often used to treat pain in cancer patients. But on the street, the odorless, tasteless drug is called Bud Ice or Theraflu, and it's mixed with heroin. Fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, and experts say it is killing heroin addicts who don't know they've bought a tainted hit.

JACQUELINE ROBARGE: People don't realize they're buying a product that could be 10 to 100 times more strong than the drug they're used to getting.

KEYES: Jacqueline Robarge runs Power Inside, a Baltimore-based organization that serves women. Like the city and the state of Maryland, she's been passing out fliers warning addicts.

ROBARGE: What we were hoping to do and what we are continuing to do as a harm-reduction program is to inform people who are drug users of the threat so that they can take this information into account when they're using drugs to prevent fatal overdose.

EDWARD MARCINKO: It's alarming right now.

KEYES: Edward Marcinko is with the DEA's Baltimore District Office and says the fentanyl-laced heroin is a problem both in the city and suburbs.

MARCINKO: It's happening in Baltimore City. It's happening in Frederick County, Hagerstown. It goes to all genders of life, all races.

KEYES: He adds one of the reasons law enforcement officials are strategizing is that a different kind of user has emerged as prescription drugs get more expensive.

MARCINKO: We're seeing a new culture of heroin addicts due to the prescription of opioid drugs, oxycontin. When those drugs are no longer available, people get addicted to them, they need to get their fix, so they try heroin.

KEYES: Maryland Attorney General Rod Rosenstein thinks the new addicts are driving an increase in heroin use in general, which he says is a broader challenge for law enforcement. He adds that fentanyl has been a problem before.

ROD ROSENSTEIN: We prosecuted a large case in Baltimore in 1993 involving about 30 deaths that were attributed to fentanyl-laced heroin.

KEYES: Rosenstein says his office, the DEA, and several other agencies are meeting to brainstorm Friday to find out where the fentanyl is coming from and stop it.

ROSENSTEIN: The adulteration could occur anywhere along the supply chain. It could be from the point of manufacture, which could be in Asia or Mexico or some place else.

KEYES: Back at the Baltimore City Health Department, Chris Serio-Chapman also runs an overdose prevention program called Staying Alive. It allows addicts to be certified to use the drug Naloxone, basically an antidote for an overdose usually carried by emergency responders. Chapman says she can't tell those who won't stop using how to inject without risk but...

SERIO-CHAPMAN: We encourage the drug treatment. We encourage the Staying Alive program, and we also encourage people never to use alone.

KEYES: Officials worry that addicts will be drawn to the powerful mix of fentanyl and heroin, not realizing it can kill them. Even worse, it's especially dangerous for users because there's no way for them to tell if their heroin has been laced. Allison Keys, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.