Five people died in suspected opiate overdoses last month in Buffalo, proving to authorities that an end to the deadly opiate epidemic is nowhere in sight.
Just one person died in the city in August from a suspected heroin overdose. That was a major improvement over the 10 suspected deaths in July.
But death tells only part of the story. City police responded to 64 calls for assistance in suspected overdoses in August and to 66 calls in September.
Through June across Erie County, 118 people have died in opiate-related deaths, the county Health Department said. And the toll is expected to get worse, during the lengthy process of confirming opiate deaths. Health officials anticipate at least 270 deaths by the end of this year. The number of deaths countywide last year was 128.
“This is an epidemic that’s probably bigger than what we can imagine,” Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said.
The commissioner also believes the epidemic is getting worse because of what investigators are finding as they try to shut down opiate peddlers.
When federal agents busted four low-level heroin dealers in June, police discovered those dealers were receiving 1,000 calls and texts a day on average from customers, Derenda said.
“Can you imagine, 1,000 calls a day? Think about that,” the commissioner said. “The majority of customers were from the suburbs and included all walks of life from street people to students to professionals.”
Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in New York State have seized approximately one-third of all the heroin that federal agents have confiscated nationwide this year.
“Heroin trafficking organizations are targeting the East Coast with large loads of heroin for distribution in cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard,” said James J. Hunt, the DEA’s special agent in charge of the New York division, which includes Buffalo.
The epidemic “has destroyed families and the quality of life in American cities, leading to over 40 deaths per day,” Hunt said.
And why is the East Coast such a target for the Mexican drug cartels?
Because heroin has been favored by drug addicts on this side of the country, while in the Southwest and West, crystal methamphetamine is often the preferred drug, according to the DEA.
As for Erie County, the 118 confirmed opiate deaths represent individuals who died starting in January and ending around June. Laboratory toxicology tests are pending on many more cases from the summer.
“We probably haven’t even caught up to July yet on the toxicology tests because there is such an overwhelming number,” Erie County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein said.
She attributes some of the increase in the number of deaths to heroin laced with fentanyl, a highly potent laboratory-produced painkiller.
And there’s another issue slowing toxicology tests.
“There are different chemical variations of fentanyl and it makes it very difficult to test for,” Burstein said.
Fentanyl does not come from licensed drug manufacturers but rather from unregulated Chinese chemical factories, DEA officials explained. They produce it in kilogram quantities that are shipped to Mexico for distribution in the United States.
Drug dealers end up cutting the heroin with the fentanyl to satisfy addicts looking for more-intense highs and to distinguish themselves as having the best street drugs available, according to law enforcement.
Fentanyl is so potent that, when medical professionals measure it, the amounts are prescribed in micrograms, health and law enforcement officials say. In fact, if fentanyl were measured in the equivalent of three to five grains of table salt, it would be considered enough to kill someone.
All of this, Burstein says, is enough to rate the opiate epidemic as “a public health crisis.”