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Fentanyl-laced heroin claiming lives nationwide, officials say

by Gregg MacDonald

Staff Writer

More than a hundred deaths in the United States have so far been linked to a type of heroin labeled “Ace of Spades,” “Income tax,” “Bud Ice” and “Theraflu,” among other names, according to law enforcement and health care officials.

These names are used in connection with a specific “designer” heroin that is laced with an even stronger drug called Fentanyl, officials said. In the past month, New York has reported five deaths from the drug, including actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Pennsylvania and Maryland have also recorded 22 deaths from Fentanyl-laced heroin.

“Contrary to popular belief, heroin is not even close to being the strongest opiate out there,” said Ben Levenson, CEO of Texas-based Origins Recovery Centers, which operates several detoxification centers nationwide. “Fentanyl is 100 times stronger than heroin. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate that was created primarily for palliative care in order to make dying painless for cancer patients.”

Officials say a large reason the new designer heroin has become a popular choice is because the Fentanyl–heroin combination results in a more intense high than heroin on its own. The opiate inducement is extremely strong and potentially lethal if used together.

Other types of designer heroin are also gaining in popularity, according to health care officials.

A 2006 report put out by the National Institute on Drug Abuse describes a relatively new type of heroin known as “cheese.” According to the report, cheese heroin is standard black tar heroin which is then mixed with Tylenol PM or any other over-the-counter medication containing acetaminophen and the antihistamine diphenhydramine.

The cooking process for cheese heroin involves freezing the black tar heroin, which makes it easier to “cut” with these substances and then makes the ensuing mix “snortable” so users do not need to inject themselves with needles, the report states.

While this is just one of the many brands of heroin sold on the street, buyers open themselves up to ingesting any number of unknown materials that are added along the supply route, which often begins overseas, Levenson said.

“These factors combined with heroin’s addictive qualities make overdosing a real possibility as there’s no way to know how much heroin is in each batch,”he said.

As reported by the Fairfax Times last week, court records in the heroin overdose case of 16-year-old Emylee Lonczak of McLean state that the fatal 30cc dose of heroin that was injected into her arm was laced with diphenhydramine.

“The Virginia Department of Health, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined the cause of Emylee Lonczak’s death to be adverse effects of heroin and diphenhydramine,” court records state. It was also noted in court records that a physical examination of Lonczak’s body revealed that she had never before injected herself with heroin.

Greg Lannes of the PROTECT (Parents Reaching Out To Education Communities Together) Coalition against illegal drug use, knows all too well the painful loss that can result from heroin use. His daughter Alicia — a 2007 Westfield High School graduate — died at age 19 from a heroin overdose in 2008.

“It seemed like heroin use in Fairfax County dipped a little for about a year and a half after Alicia’s death,” he said. “But now it seems to be on the rise again.”

Fairfax County police say it is difficult to ascertain the local popularity of the dangerous drug.

“It is extremely difficult to accurately estimate the number of heroin users in our county. We do have a number of overdose cases so far in 2014 and are working closely with our hospital, health care and emergency partners to ascertain an accurate picture of whether or not we’ve seen an ‘increase’ in these situations,” said Fairfax County Police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell.

“We do know that heroin is being used in the county; our narcotics detectives seized roughly 1.9 pounds of heroin in 2013. We don’t believe we have any of the Fentanyl-cut heroin that has been highly publicized across the northeast in recent weeks, but there are still cases at the lab that have not been analyzed yet. Like many other drugs, heroin is highly dangerous and addictive and the FCPD continues to pursue ways to educate the public as to these dangers.”

PROTECT will be making a presentation on the dangers of heroin and other illegal drugs at 7 p.m. March 4 in James Madison High School’s Warhawk Hall, 2500 James Madison Drive in Vienna.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com