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The Journal Gazette

September 01, 2016 1:01 AM

High stakes

Opioid abuse on rise - as is drugs' unpredictability

About the only good news about the opioid epidemic is that addicts can beat the odds. This Sunday, Journal Gazette staff writer Dave Gong will share the stories of two local users who found their way back from addiction to opioids and methamphetamine and the consequences for them and their families.

But as bad as the epidemic has been – 54 people died of drug overdoses in Allen County last year – it could get worse.

In Louisville, health officials called a news conference Wednesday to say there had been 24 cases of confirmed drug overdoses during the previous day. Calling the situation “a public health emergency,” Dr. Robert Couch, an emergency physician at Norton Hospital there, said the opioids in cases he’s seeing are so strong that emergency responders are having to administer extra-large doses of the antidote nalaxone to revive patients.

Tsunamic upsurges have also been reported in recent days in Ohio and southern Indiana. Some of the victims who believed they had been taking heroin were actually getting straight fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that can be 50 to 100 times more powerful.

Others had ingested heroin laced with another synthetic that’s used to tranquilize elephants and is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl.

Fort Wayne Police Department Capt. Kevin Hunter said the officers of his Vice and Narcotics Division commonly find fentanyl in the heroin they recover. It is incredibly dangerous. “Fentanyl equivalent to two grains of salt is enough to kill you,” he said. 

The fentanyl on our streets is not the kind made by pharmaceutical companies and used in hospitals to help patients in acute pain. It is made illegally in Mexico and used to “stretch” supplies of less-powerful heroin. “It doesn’t take much to get somebody high,” Hunter said.

But an addict in Fort Wayne sees only a package of white powder. “There’s no way they can tell the difference,” Hunter said. “It’s really hard to say what is in any drug that’s sold on the street.”

The addict may ingest what he or she thinks is a “normal” dose and tailspin into opioid overdose – struggling to breathe and falling unconscious within minutes.

That some heroin packing an extra dose of lethality must be placed in the context of the overall opioid epidemic, which, according to some of those who see the results, also seems to be rising.

In the last three weeks, emergency responders locally have had about30 calls a week for overdoses – about double what had been the norm, Hunter said.

This despite warnings in the media, the new state and federal emphasis on treatment, and efforts to reduce excess prescribing of opioids, addiction to which leads many to street heroin. Even after high-profile crackdowns on pill mills, “doctors overprescribing is still an issue,” Hunter said.

“More and more people are using (opioids),” Hunter said. “I think things are probably going to get worse before they get better.”