The drug, acetyl fentanyl looks like heroin but it's much stronger and Federal and State officials are very concerned about it. Abuse of the prescription painkiller has been linked to at least fifty deaths in Pennsylvania this year.
Fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl is administered for severe pain as a patch. But when used recreationally, the powerful drug is very much associated with fatal overdoses. In 2006, there was a rash of deaths in Pennsylvania, including 269 in Philadelphia.
Gary Tennis, Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs said this drug “couldn’t be more dangerous.”
Aceytl Fentanyl can resemble heroin – it has the same consistency, color and packaging. “A heroin user might not even know that the batch they just got has fentanyl in it. So if they used the normal amount of heroin that they’re used to using they’re going to die quickly. And they’ll never know what happened to them,” said Tennis.
The drug is not available for prescription in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tennis says it is coming in from Canada and is often laced with heroin.
The state has asked coroners and medical examiners to screen for the drug on all heroin and opioid deaths. So far, with two thirds of the coroners in the state reporting, there have been at least fifty deaths and five non-fatal overdoses in counties including Allegheny, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland. The department has been working with the CDC.
Last week the CDC released a health advisory citing 14 deaths in Rhode Island. Deaths have also been recorded in Michigan and other states.
Tennis said first responders and medical examiners might not be looking for the drug and that could cause problems. Treating it as a heroin overdose might not be effective because it takes more Narcan – a drug used to reverse the effects of other drugs - to stop an overdose.
“Its not anything special, except its just deadlier. I don’t understand it really," Tennis said.
Tennis says it is always dangerous to be using heroin. He likens fentanyl to a bullet in the chamber and heroin users are “playing Russian roulette every time they shoot up.”