Supercharged heroin puts Indy on alert

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IndyStar on 08/24/2016 by Vic Ryckaert and Shari Rudavsky,

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A supercharged form of heroin appears to be the cause of nearly 50 overdoses in nearby cities, putting local public safety officers on alert as they brace for the possibility of the drug’s arrival here.

The heroin is laced with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller used to treat patients recovering after surgery. The Drug Enforcement Administration calls the synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin. The combination offers addicts a more intense high — but sometimes with a deadly consequence.

In Jennings County, about 80 miles south of Indianapolis, one person died and 11 more overdosed Tuesday. Several more people overdosed in the Cincinnati area on Friday, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, with the number continuing to grow as recently as Tuesday evening.

While paramedics in Indianapolis haven’t witnessed a surge in overdoses, EMS officials issued a warning to all staff and firefighters to be aware of the highly toxic drug, said Dr. Dan O’Donnell, EMS medical director.

“It’s just a matter of when we’ll see it, not if,” O’Donnell said.

Not that Indianapolis has been immune. A few months ago, O’Donnell said, the area had a number of overdoses caused by fentanyl-laced heroin.

Greg Westfall, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s Indianapolis office, said undercover agents in Indianapolis have purchased what they thought was heroin, only to discover later it was straight fentanyl.

“It’s a very scary time right now,” Westfall said. “It is deadly.”

The fentanyl sold on the streets is a knock-off of the drug that goes to pharmacies, Westfall said. It’s made in underground factories in China, then shipped to Mexico, where cartels smuggle it throughout the U.S., he said.

“Hopefully we can start to infiltrate these organizations and get at the supplier,” said Westfall, who added that the DEA has offered to assist with the investigation in the Seymour area.

On Monday, five pounds of fentanyl were seized during a traffic stop on I-70 in Henry County. Police arrested 41-year-old Gustavo Romero of California.

Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Nick Ernstes, a member of the task force that arrested Romero, said fentanyl started being sold in Indiana more than a year ago.

“It’s coming up off of the border states, then filtering up and being pushed through to the rest of the country,” said Ernstes, whose canine partner, Manni, detected the fentanyl in the car before officers arrested the suspect. In the beginning, Ernstes said the dealers were mixing, or “stomping,” the fentanyl with heroin.

“Now the demand is such that they are getting it and they are not even stomping on it,” Ernstes said. “It’s going out as straight fentanyl, but they are selling it as heroin.”

In Seymour, police arrested Michael N. Purvis, a 34-year-old man suspected of dealing the drug to those who overdosed. He also suffered an overdose. Purvis admitted to buying the drug from someone in Jennings County, who had likely purchased those drugs from someone in Cincinnati, police said.

Purvis was held Wednesday in the Jackson County Jail on charges of dealing a controlled substance, according to online records.

For four of the people who overdosed — three in one home — police were forced to use multiple doses of naloxone to reverse the effects of the opiate, said Craig Hayes, assistant chief of the Seymour Police Department. Police are waiting on lab tests, but they think the drug was heroin combined with either fentanyl or a similar but even more powerful drug called carfentanil, which is intended for use in elephants and other large animals.

While Indianapolis has not seen an unusual spike in overdoses, paramedics have been on runs where multiple doses of naloxone are required to save a patient’s life.

“We administer until we get the desired result, which is to increase their respiration, to bring them back around,” Indianapolis EMS spokesman Carl Rochelle said.

Naloxone use has increased dramatically here in recent years. In 2013, paramedics used naloxone 629 times, Rochelle said. That jumped to 1,061 in the following year. Last year, it was used 1,225 times. This year, so far, Indianapolis is on track to reach 1,500, with 1,069 uses to date.

The record high came in July with 169 uses. Over the Fourth of July weekend, there were 10 such calls one day and 12 the next, Rochelle said.

“Please spread the word,” Seymour police posted to Facebook on Tuesday. “If you know anyone that may come in contact with this heroin, please warn them!!! You may save their life!!”