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Heroin Cut With Elephant Tranquilizer Hits Another State As Overdoses Surge

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter

Heroin overdoses are surging in Michigan and authorities fear the spike is likely due to an influx of carfentanil, a painkiller intended for tranquilizing large animals.

Five people overdosed on heroin in Bay County, Michigan in October but the number is making steady increases each month. Authorities responded to 11 overdoses in November linked to opioids, although all were revived by emergency responders. The Bay County hospital has already treated 13 overdoses as of Dec. 22, one of which proved fatal. Police are concerned with the stark turnaround after a summer of barely any activity. Between May and August only two people were treated at a hospital in the area for heroin overdoses, reports Michigan Live.

Officials suspect carfentanil is to blame for the rising rate of overdoses in the region. The powerful substance, an elephant tranquilizer approximately 10,000 times stronger than morphine, recently appeared in neighboring Michigan counties and is beginning to spread.

“There’s been carfentanil reported in Saginaw and throughout the state,” Bay County Undersheriff Troy Cunningham told Michigan Live. “We haven’t specifically seen it in Bay County, but we know it’s around here from the law enforcement meetings we have.”

The presence of the deadly substance is causing a new problem for police conducting drug raids. In the chaos of a major drug bust, heroin powder can go airborne, poisoning officers exposed. Police are now cautioned to avoid field-testing due to the risk of exposure to carfentanil or fentanyl, which is roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. (RELATED: Heroin Epidemic Drives Spike In Foster Care, Could Cause Orphanages To ‘Come Back’)

“Whatever they find it in, they’re to put that in an evidence bag and send it for testing,” Cunningham told Michigan Live. “It’s too dangerous for officers and the public to potentially send it airborne.”

Authorities are also concerned about an uptick in fatal relapses, particularly due to the presence of fentanyl and carfentanil. Officials say many former addicts are released from treatment and attempt to take the same quantity of heroin as they did when their tolerance was much higher, causing a deadly reaction.

Deaths from synthetic opioids containing these powerful painkillers surged 72 percent between 2014 and 2015 across the U.S., but several states are experiencing even larger increases. New York experienced a 135.7 percent increase in synthetic opioid and heroin deaths between 2014 and 2015. Connecticut saw a 125.9 percent increase over the same time, while deaths in Illinois spiked 120 percent.

South Carolina experienced the largest increase in the heroin death rate at 57 percent between 2014 and 2015. The heroin death rate also rose 46 percent in North Carolina and 43.5 percent in Tennessee over the same period. Heroin-related deaths tripled from 247 in 2011 to 748 in 2015 in Maryland, according to data from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Deaths from fentanyl-laced heroin in Maryland during the first half of 2016 doubled when compared to the same period in 2015.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention warns no one is immune to the expanding opioid epidemic, noting similar increase in the rates of overdoses among all races and sexes and across socioeconomic lines.

Heroin deaths contributed to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993. Opioid fatalities also eclipsed deaths from motor vehicle accidents in 2015. The substance accounts for roughly 63 percent of drug fatalities. The U.S. suffered the deadliest year on record for fatal drug overdoses, which claimed 52,404 lives in 2015.

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