PITTSBURGH—Investigators were working on arrests linked to roughly 30 nonfatal heroin overdoses in recent days as federal and local law enforcement teamed up in hopes of getting ahead of western Pennsylvania’s growing heroin epidemic.
Dangerous batches of heroin—some laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl—have caused the overdoses in Cambria and Washington counties, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said at a news conference Wednesday. The Pittsburgh-based prosecutor oversees 25 counties.
Hickton wanted to alert the public to drugs sold in stamp bags marked “Black Boot,” ”Boot Camp,” and “Peace of Mind” in Washington County and “Bulletproof” and “Head Trauma” in Cambria. He said lab tests have already confirmed that some Washington County heroin was laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic painkiller often linked to overdoses. Tests on the Cambria County drugs were ongoing.
Hickton said the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and local agencies have begun treating every overdose as a criminal investigation into the dealers, which wasn’t done in the past.
The DEA is coordinating the collection of data sheets on each overdose, which should help investigators more quickly identify patterns of overdoses and especially potent drugs.
“And there’s some good news in this terrible report,” Hickton said. “It appears nearly all of the individuals who overdosed were revived with Narcan by paramedics or police.” The drug can block the effects of heroin if administered soon after an overdose, and Hickton’s office has pushed law enforcement and public health agencies to use it.
The DEA has deployed six agents to Washington County and was using the new informational response to overdoses to investigate them more quickly.
“We have already identified suspects in both counties and we’re working on arrests,” Hickton said.
Publicly identifying the dangerous batches of drugs can sometimes make it more difficult to find and arrest dealers, who may change how they label the drugs or close up shop in some areas and move to others.
But, Hickton said, “frankly, we think the balance weighs in favor of the public health concern.”
The “supercharged” heroin that fuels these overdose breakouts is so dangerous in part because dealers can charge more for it.
“And, as counterintuitive as this sounds, the addicts seek it,” Hickton said. Addicts often view themselves as “invincible” and believe, “It may kill someone else but not me.”
“Your brain is so hijacked that you need this drug like you need to breathe or eat or sleep,” Hicktonsaid, attempting to explain such irrational behavior.
In recent months, Hickton’s office has charged eight people with supplying heroin that led directly to five fatal overdoses. Another suspect was charged late last year with selling a “super” brand of fentanyl-laced heroin that may be linked to two more deaths.
Although the latest overdoses are outside Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, the problem continues in the city, too. There were 307 drug overdose deaths in 2014 and 349—or nearly one each day—in 2015 in Allegheny County.
That’s why alerting the public to prevent overdoses—instead of merely prosecuting dealers after the fact, is so important, Hickton said.
“Shame and stigma have fueled this problem,” Hickton said. “It is urgent that people who love these addicts to get them off the streets and into care.”