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Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey Seeks DEA Assistance for Surging Heroin Abuse.

National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In the wake of the recent surge in heroin possession and manufacturing arrests – with several dozen taking place across the state, including the infamous “drug mule” sting that last September that netted 17 arrests at once – Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) sought assistance from the Drug Enforcement Agency to ensure that drug dealers don’t try to rebrand and sell tainted heroin.

Casey said the toxic, tainted drug has been found in six counties in the state, and has led to 22 deaths.

Casey, in a letter to DEA officials, thanks the agency for its past support of similar measures, but implored the agency to take note of this latest danger.

“I’m asking the DEA to increase federal coordination on this effort in order to protect Pennsylvanian residents from this deadly drug,” Casey said. “Rebranding this fentanyl-laced heroin could endanger more Pennsylvanians. It’s critical that residents remain vigilant and that the DEA work with state and local law enforcement to make every effort to get this drug off the street.”

In Casey’s letter to the DEA, the senator referred to recent arrest and the rather catchy street names fentanyl-laced drugs are known by – a further enticement for the young.

“Last week, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner first noticed an unusual trend in apparent overdose deaths and performed tests on several samples of heroin, the results of which revealed the presence of fentanyl. This narcotic, which can be one hundred times as strong as heroin, was apparently mixed with heroin and sold in stamp bags labeled “Theraflu,” “Bud Ice,” and “Income Tax.” In a matter of days, the tainted heroin was found in six counties and has led to twenty-two deaths. On January 30, a twenty-nine year old man was charged with possession and intent to sell over 2,000 bags of heroin, some of which are believed to be related to the increase in heroin overdose deaths in the region,” read a portion of Casey’s letter. “According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Pennsylvania has the third highest rate of heroin abuse in the country, and heroin abuse in western Pennsylvania is on the rise. The current spate of overdoses is part of a much broader epidemic of heroin and prescription drug abuse, and I look forward to working with you to identify solutions to the underlying causes of this abuse.”

Like the many chemicals found in illegal drugs, fentanyl has both positive and negative connotations and uses.

“Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opiate analgesic similar to but more potent than morphine. It is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, or to manage pain after surgery. It is also sometimes used to treat people with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to opiates. It is a schedule II prescription drug,” read a summary provided by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Like heroin, morphine, and other opioid drugs, fentanyl works by binding to the body's opiate receptors, highly concentrated in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. When opiate drugs bind to these receptors, they can drive up dopamine levels in the brain's reward areas, producing a state of euphoria and relaxation. Medications called opiate receptor antagonists act by blocking the effects of opiate drugs. Naloxone is one such antagonist. Overdoses of fentanyl should be treated immediately with an opiate antagonist.

“However, the type of fentanyl associated with recent overdoses was produced in clandestine laboratories and mixed with (or substituted for) heroin in a powder form,” the summary continued. “Mixing fentanyl with street-sold heroin or cocaine markedly amplifies their potency and potential dangers. Effects include: euphoria, drowsiness/respiratory depression and arrest, nausea, confusion, constipation, sedation, unconsciousness, coma, tolerance, and addiction.”

The NIH has long been aware of the caustic fentanyl, having released in 2006 a warming related to the drug.

“A deadly drug combination has been eliciting a great deal of media attention lately. Dozens of individuals in the Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit areas have overdosed on a combination of heroin (or cocaine) and fentanyl, a narcotic analgesic that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine - and some have died,” wrote National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D. “And while it may not be as familiar as other prescription opiates or street drugs like heroin, it is causing a wave of overdoses and deaths, not from its diversion for non-medical purposes, but likely a result of illicit drug manufacturing. Combined with heroin and used in powder form, fentanyl represents an intersection of prescription drug with street drug and reminds us of the potential dangers associated with the abuse of both - particularly as the abuse of prescription painkillers continues to grow in young adults and youth.

“We must therefore be vigilant in educating ourselves and those around us on the dangers associated with all drug abuse.”

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