Stories about increasing heroin use throughout the country are a dime a dozen, it seems.  Police are seeing it more and more on the streets. Judges are seeing crimes which are ultimately related to it play out day after day and coroners are calling more and more deaths its fault on certificate after certificate.

But a new opiate scourge is already beginning to play a role in the Northeast Ohio illicit drug scene and it’s got authorities worried.  It’s called fentanyl and, although its abuse has been on law enforcement’s radar for years now, its synthetic incarnation, which is produced in clandestine drug labs often outside the U.S., is becoming more and more familiar to area police departments and courtrooms.

It began seeing use as a cutting agent traffickers mixed with heroin to get more product out of a given quantity of the latter drug, said Lake County Narcotics Agency Director David Frisone, who added that fentanyl is now beginning to show up on its own and it’s much more potent than heroin alone.

“Now we’re hearing about a lot more overdose deaths with this fentanyl,” Frisone said. “It’s stronger than heroin and now its being sought by addicts because they don’t get the same high from just the heroin anymore.” Frisone said it’s much more dangerous than even heroin because it’s a synthetic drug and its potency can vary from dose to dose, depending upon where it’s being manufactured, and that it’s likely contributed to a number of heroin-attributed deaths in recent months.

Speaking of heroin-related deaths, Frisone said they’re climbing back up after a decrease.  He said his agency had 42 opiate-related overdose deaths in Lake County in 2013, according to the Lake County Coroner’s Office. That fell to about 24 in 2014, Frisone said.

But by mid-November, they stood at 33, which is close to the average Lake County had been seeing each year for a while, he said.  “It’s unfortunate,” he said. “Here, we were encouraged. We were making an impact and we were proud about that, but now I have to go to the board and tell them we’re back up close to our average of 35 overdose deaths for the year.”

As far as heroin seizures go, Frisone said those spiked this year, but it had a lot to do with two big busts agents made in 2015: one involving 2 kilograms delivered via UPS to a Painesville Township address over the summer and another involving about 300 grams of black tar heroin delivered to a Madison Township trailer park.

Those two busts alone brought the total weight of heroin seized by the LCNA in 2015 to 3,151 grams, compared to 398 grams in 2013 and 309 grams in 2014, he said.

In Geauga County, the heroin picture seems to be arranging itself similarly.  Chardon Municipal Court Judge Terry Stupica, who has been on the bench there since 2012, said she began keeping a tally of the number of heroin addicts appearing before her, ever since May 28, 2013 – a day on which she saw nine heroin addicts compared to seven OVI offenders, and that was something that struck her.  “Then, yesterday, I looked and I’ve had 483 heroin addicts appear before me since I started keeping that tally,” she said in a Dec. 29 phone interview.

To add to that perspective, she said that, when she started Geauga County’s Opiate Task force in 2012, there were 36 overdose deaths that year. And by 2015 there have been 190 to 200 such deaths between Lake and Geauga counties.  “And there could be more,” she said, adding that the system in place to keep track of the number of overdose deaths doesn’t provide an up-to-the-minute, or even an up-to-the-month, number.

And, like, Frisone, Stupica said she’s been paying attention to the fentanyl issue as its death toll is beginning to eclipse that of heroin.  “Heroin deaths, overall, are down,” she said. “But fentanyl deaths are up and it’s no surprise when you look at it. Fentanyl can be 50 times more potent than heroin.”

Both Stupica and Frisone agreed that the abundance of doctors prescribing prescription opiate pain killers throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s may very well have set the stage for the heroin epidemic seen through much of the state today. With heroin becoming more pure and more available, it’s become a replacement for many who became addicted to pain pills and needed another way to get high.

Published by the The News-Herald