Crime lab reveals tainted heroin
ROCHESTER (1/20/16)--What's in those illegal bags of heroin being sold in Central New York? In nearly half of sampled cases, according to the Monroe County Crime Laboratory, it's not just heroin but a mixture of drugs. Heroin users are often putting themselves at risk of consuming a mixture of powerful and potentially fatal substances. The Monroe Country Crime Lab, located in downtown Rochester, is tasked with analyzing drugs seized by law enforcement agencies in eight central New York counties (including Yates). Of the nearly 8,000 "decks," or bags, of heroin tested in 2014 (the latest year for which figures are available), 54 percent of them contained heroin alone. The rest tested positive for varying amounts of other drugs, the deadliest of which is the pain medication fentanyl.
The number one additive in the region's heroin? Caffeine -- found in nearly a fifth (18 percent) of all the samples tested. Why would dealers add it to heroin? "Caffeine is a mild stimulant," explains James Wesley, the lab's drug chemistry supervisor. "So you get a little bit of a speedball effect." Procaine, a local anesthetic used in dentistry, and xylazine, used as a veterinary tranquilizer, were each found in 3 percent of sampled heroin seizures. Procaine in sufficient amounts can cause respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. Xylazine causes a similar effect to that of heroin and results in a stronger high than heroin alone. Chronic xylazine use can lead to some nasty side effects, including skin ulcers.
But perhaps the most sinister additive in heroin is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever, chemically related to heroin but some 50-100 times more powerful. (It is typically prescribed to patients with advanced cancer.) With a glut of heroin on the market, dealers are adding fentanyl to heroin to boost the high of their product, distinguish it from the rest, and make it more desirable to users. Fentanyl was found to have been added to heroin in some 2 percent of the decks analyzed by the Monroe County Crime Lab.
"And people might say, why are we so concerned if only 2 percent of all heroin has fentanyl," Wesley says, "It doesn't sound like much. Well, you take 7,900 decks [that were tested], and of those about 160 decks will have fentanyl. Imagine 160 decks of heroin that have fentanyl [on the street]. You can almost guarantee that each one would be an overdose." The Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office recorded 94 deaths due to heroin in 2014 in the counties it covers; fentanyl was also found in the blood of 50 of those overdose victims. Wesley points out that the powerful drug is also being abused in pure form.
Aside from the danger of unknown additives, there is another wild card factor at play in today's heroin: weight. The crime lab does "deck weight analysis," determining how much powder by weight there is in those seized decks, and the news there is also worrying. Recent test results indicate that the weight in the decks found in seizures can vary widely in any one dealer's product. One dealer's decks was found to range in weight from 10 to 30 mg, for example, while another dealer's bags ranged from 35 to 64 mg -- all of them for sale "for the same 10 bucks," Wesley notes. And users can't necessarily tell the difference in weight by looking, or simply may not care, until it's too late.
This deck weight variation is a relatively new development, says Wesley. "Years ago, the dosage was relatively consistent, and the average dose in a bag would be, say, 30 mg. You went to Joe Drug Dealer and you'd consistently get that same amount in a bag. But once heroin became the rage again, there was the pressure to produce quickly, and the stuff is so plentiful and cheap, that dealers now care a lot less about consistency -- it could be 10 mg or 80 mg. Which means that just in terms of dosage, heroin use has become more of a Russian Roulette."