Fentanyl laced heroin fuels new synthetic drug epidemic in South Florida

Powerful synthetic drug presents public health challenge

MIAMI – Julia Cannon is five months into her recovery from heroin and can still remember seeking out dealers whose product had a deadly record.  

"If you know of a dealer whose bag killed someone, you're going to go to that dealer," Cannon, 21, said. "Because theirs is the strongest."

Heroin use in South Florida is on the rise and outdoes the crack epidemic this outdoes the cocaine epidemic, according to epidemiologist Jim Hall of Nova Southeastern University. 

The potency of heroin has increased because it is often combined with an illicit version of the painkiller fentanyl, making it 100-times stronger than morphine and potentially deadly even in small doses, according to Hall.

Pharmaceutically, fentanyl can be used as an anesthetic, but illicit fentanyl is commonly mixed with heroin, creating a lethal dose.

From 2014 to 2015 in Broward County, fentanyl deaths increased 49 percent from 53 in 2014 to 79 to 2015 cases. Heroin deaths grew 186 percent, from 28 in 2014 to 80 in 2015.

In Miami Dade, fentanyl deaths spiked 363 percent from 22 percent in 2014 to 102 in 2015 cases and heroin deaths doubled from 42 in 2014 to 85 in 2015.

During a ride along with Miami Police, Local 10 News discovered a heroin market right behind a county government building in Overtown.

"This is a whole other demon and you can't get it off your back," Alex Muniz, a heroin addict, said.

He said chronic back pain from his work as a tattoo artist led to a prescription for the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. When that ran out he found heroin was a cheaper, stronger alternative.

"Without it I get sick I get withdrawal," Muniz explained. "I don't even get high anymore. I just get normal."

Health officials have said the crackdown on prescription painkillers in Florida cut off supply but didn't address opioid addictions left behind.

Open drug use captured on cell phone video by Miami Police means officers have arrested people using the drug, but many say that these users need a doctor, not jail.

"At the same time they failed to increase treatment opportunities," said Hall. "There are long waiting lists and people can't wait."

Local 10 News was with police in late April when they found a man dead of a suspected overdose, the needle still in his arm.

"Just in one day in February there were five fentanyl heroin overdose deaths," Hall said.

Before getting hooked on heroin Cannon was a college student.

Hall said that's the profile for today's heroin addicts, many of them are young moms. And the path to heroin addiction is nearly always through prescription pills.

"I was introduced to it in my high school," David Gurtman, a recovering addict, said. "A wealthier area, and people are all of a sudden shocked that their kids are dying from heroin overdoses."

Deana Rash was a college graduate and an athlete. Doctors prescribed Rash Percocet for the pain after she had a C-section with her first pregnancy.

Eventually the prescription ran out. Addicted, she tried heroin and said she never imagined the things she would do in addiction.

"I left my daughter when she was 18 months old," Rash said. "And I have not seen her to this day,"

Rash isn't allowed contact with her daughter, who is now in middle school.

She has since had a second daughter who she is raising and works at a recovery center trying to help others steer clear of the deadly risk too many are willing to take.

"That's how we see it," Elizabeth, a heroin addict, said. "We're going to do what we have to do to feed the monster."  

Health officials say much of the illicit fentanyl is produced in China and Mexico. In April the Pinellas County Sheriff's office said nine people died taking counterfeit Xanax and Oxycodone pills made with fentanyl.


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