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Long Island's fentanyl-related deaths peak with painkiller-laced heroin use

Fentanyl Citrate, a CLASS II Controlled Substance as

Fentanyl Citrate, a CLASS II Controlled Substance as classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the secure area of a hospital on Friday, July10, 2009. Credit: Getty Images / Joe Amon

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

The powerful opioid fentanyl has been linked to at least 42 overdose deaths on Long Island during the past 15 months, as local heroin dealers increasingly lace their product with the dangerous additive, records show.

The fentanyl-related death totals in both counties are the highest in at least a decade and represent a dangerous development in the region's ongoing opioid epidemic, authorities said. Dozens of additional users have suffered nonfatal overdoses linked to the painkiller.

"It [fentanyl] knocks you right out," said Janelle Karas, a recovering opioid addict from Suffolk who overdosed on a heroin-fentanyl mixture in February. "There's nothing like it, because if you've been using [heroin] for a while and built up a tolerance, it takes your high to a different level. But for the same price."

One of the first signs of this dangerous new trend in Long Island's heroin market came in January 2014, when paramedics in eastern Suffolk County found four people unconscious in a beachfront residence, syringes and small plastic bags of drugs scattered around them.

The men and women would survive, but an analysis of the heroin they'd overdosed on revealed that fentanyl had been added to give the batch an extra kick, records show.

Over the next 15 months, the additive would show up in scores of additional heroin bags throughout Nassau and Suffolk, often with deadly results, a Newsday review of death records and police reports found.

"It's extremely dangerous and it's taken lives," Gary Shapiro, deputy inspector with the Nassau County Police Department, said of laced batches. "We're very concerned."

Fentanyl is the most potent opioid available for use in medical treatment, 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin, authorities said. It is sometimes used to induce anesthesia before medical procedures. And even a small dose can be fatal.

Heroin dealers often cut their product with fentanyl to stretch their supply further and make it more potent, police said. Some users inject fentanyl-laced heroin unknowingly, while others purposely seek it out, wanting the added high.


Nassau issued a public warning about fentanyl in January 2014 after linking the drug to several deaths, and County Executive Edward Mangano issued another bulletin last month about the additive's presence in local heroin supplies.

"Family and friends need to stay alert, watch the warning signs of drug abuse and get their loved ones help before they overdose . . . or sample this deadly mix of heroin and fentanyl," Mangano warned last month.

In Suffolk County, police and paramedics have been among the state's leaders in using the lifesaving antidote Narcan to revive overdosing opioid users, some of whom took too much fentanyl, officials said.

Authorities throughout Long Island have issued regular warnings about additives used in local heroin supplies. But for some addicts, dire proclamations from police and public officials can make fentanyl seem even more alluring.

"When they say 'it's really dangerous and you shouldn't take it,' that actually makes the hard-core [users] want it more," Karas said. "To them, these warnings are like advertisements."

Steven Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said the Island's fentanyl scare has spurred his organization to warn heroin addicts to take smaller "test shots" before injecting a regular dose, in order to check the product's potency.

"A lot of people don't understand what they're taking," Chassman said. "The heroin out there is already extremely pure, and the fentanyl is making it even stronger. We're trying to save these people's lives."


Glut of painkillers

Thousands of Long Island residents first became addicted to opioids in the mid-2000s, authorities said, due to a glut of prescription painkillers flooding the market. Those pills became harder to obtain during the past two years amid increased regulations and a dwindling street supply.

With demand outpacing availability, opioid pill prices soared, selling for as much as $80 each. Since then, addicts priced out of the pill market have turned to heroin in droves, buying bags for as little as $5 in Nassau and Suffolk, authorities said.

Now, as their tolerance to heroin builds, those same addicts are increasingly turning to fentanyl-laced batches, authorities said.

"They're looking to find whatever gives them that next, quickest, biggest high," said Jamie Bogenschutz, executive director of the YES Counseling Center in Massapequa. "That's how this epidemic's been working."

Opioid overdoses killed at least 341 people on Long Island in 2014, records show. It's unclear how many of those deaths were caused by a heroin-fentanyl combination, as that statistic is not tracked by local coroners.

The surge in fentanyl-related overdoses locally reflects a national trend, officials said.

Last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a nationwide alert about fentanyl-laced heroin, with agency officials calling the overdose rate "alarming" and saying it represented a significant threat to public health.


Fentanyl-related busts

During the past two years, DEA officials said they have seen a major increase in fentanyl-related drug seizures. Crime labs reported 3,344 fentanyl submissions nationally in 2014, up from 942 in 2013, according to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System, which compiles drug-testing data.

Special Agent in Charge James Hunt, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office, said Mexican drug organizations are sending massive amounts of fentanyl to the United States, along with the heroin to mix it with.

"They know they've got a captive market here," Hunt said. "It just shows how desperate users are."

People looking for help with addiction can call the New York State Hopeline, 24 hours a day, at 877-846-7369.

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016.

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book.

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote.

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures.

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources. In this story, Newsday could not locate: Janelle Karas. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review.

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names.

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes.

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local.

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.”

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes.

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday.

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission. If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories.

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