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As the number of deaths due to heroin overdoses surges, officials in the U.S. and Canada say a potent additive is making things worse. Fred Bever reports that dealers are cutting heroin with a synthetic opiate called fentanyl and it's killing unsuspecting users.
FRED BEVER, BYLINE: A couple weeks ago, Portland, Maine, resident Angelo Alonzo shot up what he believed was a safe dose of heroin, and he nearly died. He blames an illegal version of a powerful painkiller, fentanyl.
ANGELO ALONZO: It was fentanyl-laced 'cause it was enough to drop me to my knees, you know, an amount that usually just gives me a good, mellow high was just way too much - woke up in the shower. And I was cold and I didn't put myself there.
BEVER: Alonzo was lucky. A friend treated him with an emergency anti-overdose drug called this Naloxone. And while it would take a toxicology workup to discover exactly what was in the dose that floored him, Alonzo does know that fentanyl, which can be 40 times more potent than heroin, is making a big showing in Maine.
ALONZO: By the time dope makes its way to Maine, it's so cut down that the purity isn't there. So you want customers to come at you. So an easy, cheap way to do it - you make that right mix, you know? And you - everyone loves your stuff. But that right mix might kill some people too.
BEVER: Pharmaceutical grade fentanyl can be a blessing for patients in extreme pain. But authorities say in the last two years, Mexican cartels have ramped up production of a variant called acetyl fentanyl, and they're smuggling it into the U.S. Acetyl fentanyl's street price is slightly higher than heroin according to the DEA, but it's stunning potency makes it a good deal. Mary Lou Leary is deputy secretary of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
MARY LOU LEARY: Heroin is bad enough, but when you lace it with fentanyl, it's just like dropping a nuclear bomb on the situation. It's so, so much more dangerous.
BEVER: The feds say there were at least 700 fentanyl-related deaths nationwide in a period from late 2013 through 2014. That's a number the DEA itself says is likely an undercount, and many states as well as Canadian provinces are reporting a sudden wildfire of overdose deaths. Two years ago, Maine authorities documented seven deaths related to elicit fentanyl. One year later, that number climbed 500 percent to 43 deaths. Maine's attorney general, Janet Mills, says this year, fentanyl's profile is rising.
JANET MILLS: In July alone, we suspect that approximately one death a day in Maine was due to a drug overdose of some sort. We are confirming this with laboratory testing, but a substantial number of those involved fentanyl.
BEVER: Law enforcement and policymakers are struggling to react to the fast-moving epidemic. Maine attorney general Mills says prosecutors should seek the ability to make felony charges in fentanyl cases, not only to ease deal-making with users for intelligence about drug network, she says...
MILLS: But that we want to have significant sentence hanging over them so that we can encourage them - force them, if you will, into treatment.
BEVER: Federal and state authorities are trying to boost public awareness about fentanyl and have tried to get out the word when a dangerous batch hits the streets. But there's a terrible irony in all this. For some heroin users, as Angelo Alonzo says, danger is magnetic.
ALONZO: The sad thing, too, is usually when someone hears that people are, you know, dropping or dying out there, that's usually when an addict wants that specific stuff 'cause they think that the high's unbelievable, and they want it. You know, and you can understand why. But, you know, that's a tough call, you know? You're playing with your life.
BEVER: It's unclear what Alonzo's next call may be in the difficult road toward recovery. He checked out of the local rehab shelter against medical advice. For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Portland, Maine.
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