Fifteen more deaths.
Since the start of the new year, the deadly combination of heroin and fentanyl, an all-too-common presence on the streets of Buffalo and its suburbs, has again wreaked havoc on addicts and their families.
After last year, when at least 46 people died of heroin and heroin-fentanyl overdoses across the region, the new numbers strike authorities as intolerable.
“These are alarming statistics,” said Michelle Y. Spahn, resident agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Buffalo.
The new numbers on overdoses across the region were part of a message Spahn and other law enforcements officials delivered to addicts and the people who know them: Beware of the heroin being sold right now.
“Please don’t do it,” Spahn said of the fentanyl-laced heroin turning up in drug busts and overdoses.
Spahn’s warning, which was echoed by U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., followed the arrest of two men suspected of selling heroin to James Forness, a Hamburg man who died of an overdose last month.
Hochul said the arrest of John Haak, 33, of Evans, and Francis Tessina, 43, of Buffalo, underscores the dangers of the heroin and fentanyl-laced heroin being sold on the streets today.
Hochul, who has issued public warnings about heroin in the past, displayed a box of rat poison and suggested the heroin being bought by addicts now is all too often fatal.
“You’re doing almost the same thing as injecting yourself with rat poison,” he said Wednesday.
Addiction experts say the string of fatal overdoses is proof that the heroin making the rounds these days is too strong and too risky.
Robin Clouden, executive director of Kids Escaping Drugs, says the group’s youth treatment program has lost six kids to fatal overdoses since late December.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” she said.
Heroin, Clouden says, has become the common enemy, especially among younger users. She says three-quarters of the kids in her treatment program are there because of heroin.
It’s a drug, when mixed with fentanyl, that is significantly stronger than normal heroin, according to Dr. Michael Cummings, executive director for Behavioral Health Integration at the Erie County Medical Center.
“People can overdose and die in moments after injecting this,” Cummings told reporters.
During a news conference called to warn addicts of the dangerous new heroin on the streets, Cummings and others said a lot of users are unknowingly getting fentanyl-laced heroin and not realizing the risks.
Cummings also downplayed the success of Narcan, a drug that can sometimes halt the deadly effects of heroin. State officials claim the drug, which has been given to law enforcement agencies across New York, has saved more than 100 lives the past year.
Narcan can be valuable, Cummings said, but it often doesn’t work as well with opiates as strong as fentanyl-laced heroin.
In the court case that grew out of one of those overdoses, Haak and Tessina are currently facing charges of distributing heroin. Those charges could grow more serious if laboratory tests draw a link between the two men’s alleged drug sales and Forness’ death.
In court papers, a DEA agent says Haak admitted sending text messages to Forness advising him to be careful with the heroin because he believed it contained fentanyl.
The two men appeared Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy. Haak was released with conditions, and Tessina was detained.
In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank T. Pimentel raised the possibility that both men could be looking at substantially longer prison sentences if they are linked to Forness’ fatal overdose.
“I expect, pending lab results, that the penalties from the ultimate charges may increase,” Pimentel told McCarthy.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Leslie Scott and defense lawyer David R. Addelmann declined to comment on the allegations against their clients.
In a separate case, a federal grand jury indicted two other men – Trent Adair Hamilton, 33, of Lockport, and Michael Paul Mitchell, 33, of Niagara Falls – on charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin.
Hochul said other heroin-related investigations are underway.