Drug overdose deaths continued to rise in New Jersey in 2015, spurred by a powerful synthetic drug more dangerous than heroin.
The state is now on par with the soaring national rates of overdoses.
New Jersey saw more than 900 overdose deaths related to heroin use last year of 1,587 drug-related deaths, according to new data from the state Medical Examiner’s Office. And a spike in cases included the use of heroin’s synthetic counterpart, fentanyl.
Local authorities say they are seeing people use and overdose from fentanyl more often, leading to opioid treatment and overdose reversal becoming more difficult.
“Now, it may take not one but two deployments of Narcan to save someone who has mixed these drugs together,” said Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor.
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Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.
Experts say they increasingly are seeing it mixed with other drugs and sold with certain branded stamps.
Cape May County saw 32 overdose deaths in 2015, according to the medical examiner’s report. About 10 cases included fentanyl. Only one case involving fentanyl was identified in 2014.
The county and the rest of South Jersey experienced the same fentanyl trend seen in other parts of the country.
Opioids killed more than 50,000 people last year in the United States, a record high, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Deaths involving synthetic opiates, such as fentanyl, rose about 75 percent from 2014 to 2015.
The heroin epidemic has been the focus of health officials and law enforcement for more than a decade, but Chief Paul Skill, of the investigative division at the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, said synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and U-47700, a combination of opioids, have become a pressing concern.
And many addicts may buy fentanyl and other mixed products without knowing exactly what is in them and how powerful they can be.
“This stuff is not grown in underground labs anymore,” Skill said. “They can just buy it off the Internet now. There are drug dealers who are packaging up fentanyl and selling it as heroin. If someone gets heroin with fentanyl, that’s a lot for an experienced user, but for a newcomer, it’s almost a death sentence.”
Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato expects to see a dramatic rise in overdoses in the next year.
“Synthetic opioids are really what the problem is, and it’s easier to get,” he said. “They can get it on the Internet and delivered by Fed Ex and or the U.S. postal service.”
The Ocean county had a total of 157 overdose deaths in 2015, according to the state Medical Examiner, with 51 cases containing fentanyl.
Atlantic and Cumberland Counties also saw overdose cases with fentanyl double between 2014 and 2015.
Ken Hand, laboratory chemist at Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, said he has recently ordered more than 50 reference books to help him stay on top of the ever-changing compound mixtures that are found in new drugs being sold to addicts.
Law enforcement officers now take extra precautions when handling some of these more potent drugs, because even breathing them in or absorbing a pinprick could cause an overdose.
“Doing heroin is bad enough, but mixing these things is like playing Russian Roulette,” he said.