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Three people died of separate heroin overdoses on the same day in Buffalo just two weeks ago. The deaths occurred on the West Side, East Side and downtown.

A South Buffalo drug addict was found dead from a suspected heroin overdose last weekend.

A week ago Friday, a couple checked into a Lancaster motel, and two days later they were found dead. Beside their bodies were packets believed to have contained heroin, possibly spiked with deadly additives, though it will not be known for sure until toxicology tests are completed.

“They had a history of drug use, and they may have taken a stronger dose or it may have been laced,” Lancaster Police Capt. William J. Karn Jr. said.

Another heroin user in Lancaster nearly died the same day the couple rented the room, but an emergency crew arrived in time and administered an antidote.

A day later, a suspected heroin user wasn’t as fortunate. He was found dead in an East Aurora home.

There is an epidemic of heroin and other opiate deaths occurring in Erie County, much of it traced to prescription pain medication.

Last year, 29 people died of heroin overdoses in the county, almost a third more than the year before. Overdose deaths from all types of opioids, ranging from prescription pain medications to street-bought heroin, claimed more than 106 lives in Erie County last year, 32 more than in 2009.

Heroin’s resurgence comes as New York and other states have made it tougher to get prescription painkillers. Addicts are having a harder time doctor-shopping to obtain multiple prescriptions. So they are turning to heroin – or drugs they think are heroin – obtained on the street.

Heroin has long been cheaper than prescription painkillers, even painkillers bought from drug dealers. But now law enforcement authorities are encountering a disturbing trend. Heroin dealers are adding fentanyl – a synthetic opioid often given to cancer patients to cope with pain – or other ingredients to give heroin a boost. They are sometimes replacing heroin with pure fentanyl, which is fatal if injected.

And it is killing more people here.

“When you buy heroin off the street, you don’t know what you’re getting, the contents, the strength, or if it is laced with other additives or opioids like fentanyl,” Erie County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein said. “That is such a problem in our community now.”

Yet dire warnings such as the commissioner’s go unheeded, and she says that is because young people, in particular, sometimes lack the ability to think through what they are exposing themselves to when they experiment with drugs.

But one young man, who came within a whisker of death, says he has learned the truth about heroin.

•••

How heroin hooks

Sterling, a 22-year-old raised in Buffalo’s suburbs, knows he could have been among the increasing number of dead heroin addicts.

Asking that his last name be withheld because he is a recovering addict, Sterling said he went through thousands of stolen dollars chasing after a heroin high.

“I sniffed heroin the first time, and it made me feel like God. It was just so euphoric,” he said.

In time, though, it turned his life into a living hell that culminated with a failed suicide attempt.

“I took my belt and strapped it to the ceiling fan and tied to it to my neck and jumped off the pool table. The belt broke right away. I didn’t want to live any more. I went to the back tool room and got an extension cord and double-tied it to the fan and my neck and jumped again. I woke up in the back of an ambulance.”

Others have not been so lucky.

On a recent evening at a suburban funeral home, a father openly spoke of the addiction that killed his son.

It started with prescription pain pills and progressed to heroin, he said. The father asked how an intelligent graduate student pursuing a degree in social work to help others could throw away his young life. His son was barely 22.

The answer is clinical.

“The addiction is just so powerful, they lose their control. They are driven to satisfy their cravings. They have no choice. It’s a physiological need,” Burstein explained. “It’s like the need for air. We need air and people will do anything for that.”

And she says that, while autopsy results show the numbers of heroin and other opiate-caused deaths are increasing in Erie County, getting a precise statistic on the number of deaths is not simple. When addicts fatally overdose, Burstein explained, other primary causes for their death – such as suicide or pulmonary insufficiency – can end up being listed as the cause of death, leaving the drug use unaccounted.

As for the bereaved father, he said he is now awaiting toxicology tests from the county medical examiner to learn if his son died from heroin or a mixture of drugs that might include heroin and fentanyl or other high-powered pharmaceutical opioids.

•••

Twisted text messages

The grieving father, asking to remain anonymous for the sake of a surviving child who is struggling with the loss, said he came to realize that the more potent the heroin is, the more addicts are likely to brag about it.

“When I got my son’s cellphone back, I read text messages from several different people and in one exchange he was going back and forth with a friend, and they were arguing ‘my stuff’s better than yours,’ ” the father said.

Another text message from a fellow drug user to his son stated: “I blew a bag.”

The father said he knew exactly what that meant. His son’s friend had snorted it up his nose.

“Then they move on to smoking the heroin and finally injecting it for an instant high,” the father said of the progression.

He said he had warned his son after discovering in high school that his son was taking prescription medications, telling him that addicts turned to heroin when the pills became too expensive.

“We knew he had an issue with pain pills, and it is very rampant in high school. I put him through outpatient treatment. He had started with Lortab pills and was found to have a fentanyl patch that they would cut up and do in little chunks,” the father recalled.

Police say this is a familiar scenario, particularly with fentanyl.

•••

Pure fentanyl: a killer

In July, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced an indictment against a Town of Tonawanda drug dealer for selling heroin cut with fentanyl, after one of the dealer’s customers died from the mixture.

Last August, a Riverside drug dealer was arrested for selling what he claimed was heroin. It turned out to be pure fentanyl.

“The amounts they are mixing together with the heroin are lethal. Really what is happening on the streets is that the heroin is actually turning out to be pure fentanyl,” said Michelle Y. Spahn, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Buffalo office.

Once a laboratory test came back in August confirming the “heroin” from the Riverside dealer was actually pure fentanyl, the undercover investigation was shut down and the dealer arrested, said Alan Rozansky, head of the Erie County Sheriff’s Narcotics Bureau.

“There was no heroin detected in the undercover purchases, it was all fentanyl,” Rozansky said.

Anyone who injected pure fentanyl would likely die instantly, Rozansky said. So a public warning also was issued to drug addicts to discard recently purchased heroin because it could kill them.

“These desperate people have no idea what is in the bags that they are buying,” he said.

So how does the highly regulated and more-expensive fentanyl end up in the hands of a drug dealer?

Police say it is either stolen or obtained through other illegal means, such as doctors’ patients who are willing to sell it for a profit. There is also growing evidence that criminal drug organizations in Mexico and possibly the United States are setting up laboratories to produce “illicit fentanyl,” Spahn said, explaining that might account for large quantities of the opioid showing up across the country.

Sterling, the young man who has managed to put together 16 months of clean time since his failed suicide attempt, says it was pure luck that he did not die from a bad batch.

•••

Sterling’s story

Now living in Buffalo, he said several of his acquaintances in the drug world have died from overdoses since he became addicted at age 14.

Sterling said he recalled being the youngest among his circle of friends – and relishing that. At first, he drank alcohol to fit in, but promised himself he would not smoke pot with them. It was a promise he soon broke.

“At first I was just drinking and then smoking pot. As I hung out more with them, they would go out and buy prescription pain pills. I eventually was crushing and sniffing them. I was probably 15. At first I thought it was great, not knowing I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to recapture that initial feeling I got the very first time. I don’t know how to describe it. It was everything I wanted to be. That little pill gave me confidence. It made me feel like I could talk to whoever I wanted.”

Soon, though, he realized he was handcuffed to the prescription painkillers.

“It quickly progressed to a point where I couldn’t function without them. I couldn’t get out of bed. The withdrawal was terrible. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It is like the flu times one thousand. Every joint in your body hurts and there is vomiting and diarrhea. You can’t sleep, but you don’t want to stay awake. You’re freezing but you’re sweating.”

The prescription pills, he said, were a bargain at first, $5 and $10 for Lortabs and Percocets. But as time progressed, the prices spiked – as much as $100 for an 80-milligram Oxycontin or a 40-milligram Opana.

He turned to cheating and stealing, but it was not enough to pay for the pills. Then he entertained the once unthinkable idea of buying heroin.

Heroin was just $10 a bag. At that price, he said he couldn’t pass it up, though he told himself he was not part of the ugly world of street addicts.

Soon after experiencing what he thought was the ultimate high, the then-18-year-old vowed never to go beyond snorting heroin. But it was the same drill as when he took his first drink.

“I said I would just drink and never smoke weed and then I did. ... With heroin, I said I’d sniff it and never shoot it and then, you know, not too long after that, I did.”

Then came the cruelest blow of all.

“I was shooting heroin twice a day, and I wasn’t getting high anymore. I was doing it just to feel like a normal person, to be a functioning member of society.”

The routine didn’t work.

After failing at suicide, Sterling said he entered Promise House at the Kids Escaping Drugs campus in West Seneca and finally accepted the fact that he suffered from addiction. After months in a follow-up halfway house, he said he now has his own apartment, works full time and supports his two young children.

Asked to share a bit of insight in how to overcome drugs, he declined, saying it is up to the individual to make a decision on whether or not he or she wants to recover.

“Kids are going to do whatever they are going to do regardless of what is told to them or what they read. The only advice I can offer is: Don’t think that it couldn’t happen to you. I always thought it couldn’t happen to me because I came from a good family and had everything I always wanted.”

Sterling’s path of addiction follows that of the many drug addicts who come in contact with Erie County’s clean-needle giveaway program, said Burstein, the health commissioner.

•••

Survey of addicts

A yearlong Erie County Health Department survey of 100 randomly selected drug addicts who go to the different sites in the county to obtain clean needles – an effort to reduce the spread of hepatitis C and HIV – found that most turned to heroin after their doctors cut them off from prescription painkillers or the street price of the pills was too expensive.

One female addict from Depew, in answer to survey questions, said she started using heroin at 16 and was up to three to four injections a day at the age of 26. Why did she switch to heroin?

“Easiest to obtain,” she replied.

Did she ever share needles?

“Only with people I know,” she answered.

Those types of responses raise serious public health concerns and require a change in attitude by society, if the increasing problem of deadly opioid addiction has any chance of being contained, Burstein said.

“It is not always the typical kids we think of, the stereotypes, that are getting hooked on heroin. It’s not urban kids. It’s the suburban kids. They have the money to buy it. Yet people in the suburbs think, ‘not my problem,’ but in order to solve this, we have to embrace that this is a problem in the whole community,” Burstein said.

Parents, she added, cannot start soon enough in warning their children away from drugs.

“There are age- and developmentally appropriate ways to give your message to the youngest of children. You can never start too early.” That said, Burstein has a warning for those in need of surgery.

“There are estimates that 40 percent of people can get addicted to painkillers with post-operative drugs,” she said.

With those odds, it is no wonder that the problem is of national proportion.

In Pittsburgh, 17 people died of heroin overdoses, some involving fentanyl, during an eight-day period as of last Sunday. In Rhode Island, 22 people died from suspected heroin overdoses during a 13-day period in early January.

On Jan. 8, the governor of Vermont in his State of the State message devoted the entire speech to what he described as a “full-blown heroin crisis” in his state.

“In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us. It threatens the safety that has always blessed our state. It is a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but is already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers and too many Vermont families,” he said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s message, Burstein believes, could easily apply to Buffalo Niagara or countless other communities across the country.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com