Officials are being overwhelmed by rampant painkiller and heroin abuse across New Jersey, which the state attorney general called an ongoing “war” Monday.
Authorities are grappling with everything from heroin cut with elephant tranquilizers to knock-off pills containing chemicals more powerful than morphine. The state’s forensics lab is having a difficult time keeping up with the constant changes in the illicit opioid market. Fentanyl, a painkiller roughly 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin, is the most common chemical added to pills and heroin batches, but even more deadly synthetic replications are appearing in increasing numbers on the street, reports Fox News.
A majority of opioid related deaths in the state involved prescription pills in 2015, though many are counterfeit versions of a brand pill obtained on the street. Many addicts start with a prescription for painkillers, but when their supply is cut off they look for pills and heroin in the black market.
“We’re very much at war here,” Attorney General Christopher Porrino told Fox News Monday. “We’re trying to attack it on a number of fronts. When I first learned that eight out of 10 heroin addicts walking the street here in New Jersey and across the country became addicted from prescription pills, I knew we needed to do something.”
New Jersey became the first state to limit first-time opioid prescriptions to a five-day supply and has cracked down on doctors who freely prescribe painkillers. A record number of doctors in the state were sanctioned in 2016 over their irresponsible prescribing habits, resulting in long-term suspensions, permanent revocation of medical licenses and in some cases criminal charges.
The continued flow of synthetic opioids into the state is hampering efforts to bring down the overdose rate. Potent heroin batches cut with fentanyl analogs, or synthetic replications of fentanyl, are proving resistant to the overdose reversal drug Narcan. Workers at New Jersey’s Office of Forensic Sciences have identified cases of carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer and fentanyl analog roughly 10,000 stronger than morphine.
Other potent analogs including acrylfentanyl and tetrahydro fentanyl have also been identified in New Jersey’s crime lab. The lab is already testing drug samples at a higher rate than in 2016.
“It’s a game of Russian roulette any time you take any type of drug on the street,” Deborah Cole, a forensic scientist, told Fox News. “Sometimes pills are not what the markings indicate. A Percocet might have fentanyl or heroin in it. If it is an opioid it could [contain] heroin, it could be a fentanyl, it could be a clandestine pill – we just don’t know.”
GOP Gov. Chris Christie declared the opioid epidemic a public health crisis Jan. 17 in New Jersey, which has a death rate from heroin higher than the national average. There are roughly 128,000 heroin addicts in the state and health experts fear that number is likely growing. Heroin deaths spiked 22 percent between 2014 and 2015 and the state doubled the national drug overdose death rate with 1,600 fatalities in 2015.
Drug overdoses are now the number one cause of accidental death for Americans under 50. The New York Times recently culled through data from state health departments and county medical examiners and coroners, predicting there were between 59,000 and 65,000 drug deaths in 2016.
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