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At least 100 people have died in recent months in the mid-west and east coast states from a lethal combination of heroin and the prescription pain killer fentanyl. Police and federal officials are meeting in Chicago to develop a clearer picture of the threat. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY reporting:
Scientists, public health officials and law enforcement officers from Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities gathered to learn more and to share ways to combat the fatal overdoses that have plagued their towns as fentanyl-laced heroin makes its way through the streets.
The legal painkiller is more powerful than morphine. Often prescribed to cancer patients, it can be absorbed through the skin, swallowed or injected. Just a trace amount, used improperly, can cause an overdose, and slow breathing to the point of death.
Tim Ogden, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, says this latest drug scourge is extremely troubling.
Special Agent TIM OGDEN (Special Agent, Drug Enforcement Administration): Because of the potency of this drug, it poses a threat to everyone along the chain that's exposed to fentanyl.
CORLEY: Ogden says that includes the people who illicitly make the drug, transport it and sell it, as well as the drug user.
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CORLEY: This week, in a parking lot in suburban Cicero, just outside of Chicago, a group of people - black, white, young and middle aged - clustered around a silver van, run by the Chicago Recovery Alliance. They had come for food, clean needles and other services. They shared stories about their own close calls with fentanyl-laced heroin.
EVER(ph): My name is Ever. With heroin, I experienced, you know, snorting it and it felt like I was going to OD and I broke and ran to the police station, and I actually OD'd, but through the grace of God I'm still here.
CORLEY: Michael Wickster(ph), a volunteer with the Alliance, and a former long-time drug user, calls it a scary situation. He says fentanyl is being added to drugs to provide a more powerful high.
Mr. MICHAEL WICKSTER (Volunteer, Chicago Recovery Alliance): It scares me because people hear it and they think, ah, that's the spot I want to go to, you know, cause they think, hey, that's the good stuff, you know. They're going to go where the good stuff is. Oh, so-and-so OD'd. Yeah? Where'd he get it at? Over here on this corner. Oh, I got to get that stuff! You know, because we all have a tendency to think we're invincible; it's not going to be me. I'm not going to die. I can handle my stuff.
CORLEY: There have been previous overdose outbreaks linked to fentanyl, but authorities say none as deadly or as widespread. Officials shut down one lab in Mexico where they believe the drug was being illegally manufactured, but DEA agent Ogden says it's likely there are more labs elsewhere.
Special Agent OGDEN: That's not to say that all of the fentanyl that's causing the overdoses on the east coast and Detroit and Chicago are not from just one clandestine laboratory. But there are enough factors to indicate that there may be more than one clandestine lab.
CORLEY: Besides promising to track down those labs, the authorities at the summit are also calling for heftier penalties for drug dealers distributing fentanyl-laced drugs. Scott Burns, with the National Office of Drug Control Policy, says if there is anything, though, to come from the two-day Chicago meeting, it is this:
Mr. SCOTT BURNS (Deputy Director for State and Local Affairs, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): If you are addicted to heroin, there has never been a better time to stop. If you have a family member or a loved one or a friend that is addicted to heroin, now is the time to get help and to get treatment.
CORLEY: The organizers of the summit say there will be another with the focus on prevention and treatment.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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