A potent new cocktail, already popular with heroin addicts in Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, is making its debut on the streets of Western New York.
And killing people.
The cocktail, a dangerous mixture of heroin and the painkiller fentanyl, is significantly more potent than heroin and has a reputation for giving users the extra “pop” so many of them crave.
It also has been linked to several drug overdoses in Erie County, three of them fatal in recent days.
“It’s so strong, it’s killing people,” said Dale Kasprzyk, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Buffalo. “This is a deadly combination. This substance is out there in the drug-trafficking community right now.”
The mixture of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic prescription painkiller, has been showing up in other cities for years.
In Chicago, home to a large community of heroin addicts, hundreds of deaths have been linked to fentanyl and fentanyl combined with heroin since the mixture was first discovered in 2006.
Experts say the link between the overdoses here – there have been a handful over the past several days – and the heroin-fentanyl cocktail will be better known once toxicology reports are complete.
“These people are probably dying within minutes,” said Robert Osiewicz, chief toxicologist at the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office.
When word of the sudden surge in overdoses reached U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., he took the unusual step of holding a news conference Friday to announce a warning of sorts to addicts and their families: Stay away from this new fetanyl-laced heroin cocktail.
Hochul said his office already knows of one local man, Robert Runfola of Buffalo, who died at his Delaware Avenue home May 23 after allegedly using the dangerous mixture.
“He was dead within 60 minutes of ingesting the drug,” Kasprzyk said.
The drug, even though it took years to reach Western New York, has apparently arrived with ugly consequences.
“We’ve had six cases, four overdoses, and three people who died,” said John Simich, director of the forensic laboratory at Erie County Central Police Services.
And that’s just in a few days.
Osiewicz said the combination of heroin and fentanyl began showing up in his lab reports recently, and at first he thought the two drugs were being used independently by addicts.
“Now we know they were probably being used together,” he told reporters at Friday’s news conference.
Kasprzyk said a lot of the addicts who use the new cocktail are probably former prescription drug users who can no longer afford pills.
It’s not uncommon for that type of addict to turn to heroin or, in this case, a mix of heroin and fentanyl.
“When they can’t afford the prescription drugs, they transition to heroin,” Kasprzyk said.
Prosecutors believe the drugs that killed Runfola came from Peter N. Militello, 32, of Tonawanda, but have not yet charged him in connection with his death.
Hochul said Militello is charged with selling heroin and crack cocaine and could face additional charges if he’s linked to Runfola’s overdose.
“We expect the medical reports soon, in a week or two,” Hochul said.
Militello appeared Friday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy.