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
"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
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. …