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Drug users in the area are experiencing firsthand that a fentanyl induced high is not far from a long goodbye.
Fentanyl, a pain killing drug normally administered by an anesthesiologist, is making headway as a party drug.
Since April of this year, Montgomery and Berks counties have reported more than 30 fentanyl-related deaths. In Philadelphia, 70 deaths and up to 220 overdoses have occurred, and in the tri-state area, there have been 200 deaths and 500 overdoses, according to a 2006 Pennsylvania State Police report.
"Before March, we only occasionally had a fentanyl-related death," said Jeanne Ottinger, Montgomery County coroner. In Montgomery County, Ottinger said she’s seen fentanyl deaths in people as young as 20 years old all the way up to chronic users.
"Many of the deaths are individuals who are returning to drug use without realizing the potency of fentanyl -- and it’s killing them," Detective Steven Ziegler of the West Pottsgrove police said.
Fentanyl has 40 to 100 times the power of morphine and kills its abusers by stopping their breathing, Ottinger said,
"Oftentimes, the drug user will be found on all fours, or in a position where it appears they’re trying to catch their breath," said Paul Marchese, a Limerick police detective.
One such incident happened in Stowe at the end of August. A 33-year-old man was found with a syringe still in his arm in the bathroom of his Howard Street home. It was determined that he had overdosed on a fentanyl injection. Like many in the same situation, police believe he was also a heroine user at one time.
"We believe he thought he was injecting heroine," Ziegler said.
Fentanyl is most often cut into an opiate, like heroine, not only to pack a punch but to stretch the dealer’s supply. Other cutting agents include rat poisoning or baby, talcum and protein powder.
Fentanyl is obtained through prescription fraud, stolen by rogue medical workers or cooked up in clandestine labs before it is sold on the streets. It comes in liquid form and can also be administered using a topical patch.
The amount of fentanyl cut into the opiate is unregulated. The drugs are passed and tampered with many times before they actually go into the user’s body, said Marchese.
The original dealer may take the straight heroine, cut it with what he believes is the right balance for the high, and then sells it. The next person, and even the next, might do the same thing. By the time the drug enters the blood, the good high is more often than not a death wish.
This scenario played out twice in Limerick this summer. On July 3, a 56-year-old man died of a fentanyl overdose at the Ridgeview Trailer Park. On July 31, a 59-year-old woman overdosed, but did not die, on the 100 block of Abbey Drive.
Marchese said police believe the two incidents are linked by the same batch of drugs.
Both the Limerick and West Pottsgrove police departments are pursuing the sellers of these drugs to charge them with third-degree murder.
Under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, a person has committed third-degree murder if they sell drugs that result in death. This "delivery resulting in death" law was recently used against David Francis Downey, who in August 2005 gave Ashley Burg, a teen escort, enough cocaine to poison her.
As fentanyl-related deaths surge, prosecutors are recommitting to this law, which can put drug dealers in prison for up to five years, said Robert Sander, Montgomery County assistant district attorney and captain of the Narcotic Enforcement Team.
"Drug dealers are putting a plague on our society," Sander said. "If they’re doing it for a quick buck, then they need to be held responsible for their actions."
It’s safe to assume a dealer wouldn’t want to be traced to the drugs they sell, but bags of heroine, and fentanyl-laced heroine, are branded with catchy names like "Darth Vader" or "The Godfather" and symbols such as the Nike swoop or a gun.
"The dealer takes pride in the product they’re selling," Marchese said.
This branding, combined with word-of-mouth, is the drug trade’s sole marketing strategy.
"Some guy might say, ‘I got the best high. You need to ask for this label at this corner,’" Marchese said.
Prosecutors are trying to use these labels to catch the dealer whose blend is killing its users, but this is a difficult and intricate process, Sander said, because most fentanyl users take this information with them to the grave, literally.
Currently Montgomery County’s Homicide Unit is pursuing a number of these cases, Sander said, and with any luck, the right blend of skill and circumstance will lead to a surge in dealer prosecution, instead of fentanyl deaths.