CAPITAL REGION — It’s sometimes called “blue heroin” for its light blue or purplish tint, and it and a cocaine cousin are causing overdoses across the greater Capital Region.
It’s heroin (or cocaine) mixed with powerful fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and some parts of the region are seeing it.
A recent increase in overdoses has alarmed law enforcement officials across the greater Capital Region, in a pattern that came to light two weeks ago, when Schenectady County issued an extraordinary alert after seeing eight overdoses in 24 hours. One person in Rotterdam died.
The drugs would be killing far more users if not for nearly all police officers now carrying the reversal agent naloxone, or Narcan, which can quickly bring someone back from an overdose.
In Gloversville, police said on Thursday they had seen three overdoses in the prior three days, and six overdoses since the beginning of January. None of the overdoses in Gloversville has proven fatal, but in some cases police or medical personnel had to administer multiple doses of Narcan.
Gloversville police said they issued an advisory to let the public know that “any narcotic can contain fentanyl.” Police will provide Narcan to anyone who comes to the police station looking for it, they said.
Earlier this week, Washington County Sheriff James J. Murphy and police in the city of Gloversville, in Fulton County, both issued similar highly unusual public alerts about the number of overdoses they are seeing, generally tied to fentanyl mixed with either heroin or cocaine.
In nearly all cases, police or medical personnel have been able to reverse the overdose by administering nasal naloxone, which brings the user back fast, if worse for the wear.
But there have also been deaths.
In addition to the Rotterdam woman found dead on Jan. 27, at least one Washington County resident has died, Murphy reported.
In a Feb. 2 public alert, Murphy said there have been “multiple suspected overdoses in the county with at least one death that may be associated with fentanyl laced drugs such as cocaine and heroin.”
Fentanyl is cheap to make and can be used to adulterate more expensive narcotics. Murphy said that naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan, is also less effective when the overdose is cocaine-related rather than involving heroin.
The local fentanyl problem may be new — but not brand-new. Last August, Rensselaer County experienced three overdose deaths in rapid succession within a few days from a cocaine-fentanyl concoction.
Nationwide, the use of fentanyl, along with methamphetamines, shot up last year. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration highlighted growing use of both in a Jan. 26 press release.
“These two increases indicate an alarming trend in street drugs and cause concern because methamphetamine and fentanyl are dangerously potent, are mass produced by Mexican cartels, and are two top contributors to overdose deaths in the United States between May 2019 and May 2020, according to the Centers of Disease Control Health Alert Network,” the DEA release said.
In December, the CDC Health Alert Network issued a warning that drug overdose deaths significantly increased across the United States last year. There were an estimated 81,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States from May 2019 to May 2020.
Drug overdoses across the region, the state and the nation have all skyrocketed in the last decade due to the opioid epidemic. The state Health Department has reported that the rate of deaths from overdoses involving opioids of all kinds tripled between 2010 and 2017. Deaths from heroin overdoses were up six-fold for the decade.
Deaths from heroin and cocaine mixed with a synthetic opioid other than methadone really didn’t exist in 2010, but heroin-synthetic mixes in 2017 accounted for 4.6 deaths per 100,000 people annually, and adulterated cocaine accounted for 2.3 deaths per 100,000 that year, according to the Health Department’s 2019 annual opioids report.
Local statistics for 2020 aren’t yet available, but numbers are expected to be up: Stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has increased some individuals’ drug use, and the pandemic has made it harder for addiction aid organizations to do their outreach work.
“Drug overdose deaths lurk behind the public health crisis caused by COVID-19,” DEA New York Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan said in late January.
To date, not everywhere in the Capital Region has seen the tainted drugs.
Officials in Saratoga County said they aren’t yet seeing the fentanyl-laced mixtures, though they’re aware of the recent spate of overdoses, and continue to deal with more-routine overdoses.
“We have not seen it, but we continue to have a drug problem in the county,” said Saratoga County Sheriff Michael H. Zurlo.
Last weekend, Saratoga Springs police investigated an overdose death, and city police participated in a Narcan reversal last Tuesday — but police Lt. Robert Jillson said both incidents appeared to be part of the general drug use situation in the city, not tied to fentanyl or “blue heroin.”
“We haven’t experienced it yet. We’re aware of it, we talk to the sheriff and sheriffs in Warren and Washington counties and state police, but we haven’t experienced it directly,” Jillson said. “It’s a legitimate threat, but we haven’t seen it yet.”
Jillson said every Saratoga Springs officer carries Narcan, and last year the police participated in 16 overdose reversals.