Big Hurdles in Bid to Curb a Potent Heroin ; Use of Fentanyl-Laced Heroin Is Rising, as Law Officers Work to ID the Origin of the Painkiller

Article excerpt

Jimbo tries to be cautious these days. The middle-age heroin user says he buys only from dealers he knows - a hedge against getting heroin mixed with the pain-reliever fentanyl, a concoction that has killed at least 150 people in recent months.

Many of his friends, though, seek out fentanyl-laced heroin for its potent high, swapping information about where the latest overdose victim got his dope.

"They always say, 'It's gonna be different with me, 'cause I'm not going to use so much,' but it's still too much," says Jimbo, as he exchanged used needles for clean ones at a mobile van run by the Chicago Recovery Alliance. "It's a whole new ballgame."

Demand for the potent heroin-fentanyl mixture is just one factor complicating officials' efforts to contain, if not eliminate, a street drug that is raising alarms in cities in the upper Midwest and the Northeast. So far this year, the drug combo has been responsible for between 150 and 300 deaths in a handful of cities.

Last week, Chicago police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrested 29 members of a southside street gang suspected of trafficking in the specialty heroin. Over the weekend, police in Detroit arrested a local man suspected of being a major provider of the drug in that city, which has counted the largest number of fentanyl-related deaths.

Also impeding efforts to crack down on the drug is the fact that it remains something of a mystery. Officials acknowledge they have much to learn, including where the fentanyl is made. They also are concerned because, as a synthetic drug made in sophisticated labs, fentanyl may point to a new territorial opening in the war on illegal drugs.

"Even if this episode subsides, what it represents is a very serious and emerging problem. The rise of synthetic drugs manufactured in labs in the developed world is a very different phenomenon than Afghan warlords or coca crops being smuggled in," says David Murray, a senior policy analyst with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington. The good news, he says, is that federal and local law-enforcement and public- health officials have been able to test a new system of coordination and data-sharing. "We think we're seeing progress on this, but this is the kind of agility we'll require in the future for multiple synthetic threats."

Fentanyl, used as an anesthetic and pain reliever when prescribed, can be 100 times more potent than heroin - one reason addicts seek it out, but also the reason it's so deadly if the minutest error occurs when it's cut into heroin. Health officials measure its doses in micrograms rather than milligrams.

Reports about the drug began circulating in Chicago last winter, when a rash of overdoses occurred in the same place. …