Deadly drug's reputation entices addicts

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In was early June when it blared from Pittsburgh newspaper headlines and over the airwaves that a potent batch of heroin laced with fentanyl was causing overdoses, some fatal, at an alarming rate.

A 22-year-old heroin addict heard the news one morning as he was getting ready for the job that funded his $100-a-day habit. He called his addict friends, not with a warning but an entreaty: They had to get some of that "really good stuff."

That was the reaction of many heroin addicts when they heard the news. Rather than scaring them away from the potentially fatal drug cocktail, the reports drew them to it, thinking it would provide a super high.

The addict, who asked that his name not be used, left Gateway Rehabilitation Center yesterday after treatment for his four-year addiction to snorting heroin. Now, he says, he knows that searching for the fetanyl-laced heroin was "stupid, real stupid." But then, he, like other heroin addicts, was living a life succinctly described by the label on the drug mixture's stamp bags: "Get High Or Die Trying."

The reports of innumerable overdoses and a high number of fatalities didn't faze the addicts except to excite them about the prospect of getting their hands on a drug that would recapture a high that had been dulled by tolerance. Those who overdosed, they felt, weren't careful.

"We wanted it more, because of the ODs," the recovering addict said. "We wanted it because it was better. I asked around for it, but by that time, police were all over the place.

"Some dealers were trying to get it, but there were other ones who weren't because they didn't want to kill their buyers. A lot of people were getting busted, so that really did scare a lot of people away."

He never could find any of the heroin/fentanyl mixture, but two of the 10 people he called with the news succeeded, finding it in Hazelwood, where, Pittsburgh police said, distribution of the heroin/fentanyl mixture was centered.

"They got real high," he said. "They didn't OD because, by that time, everyone was warned that [the drug] was good, so they took the precaution of not doing as many bags."

For example, he said the two friends each injected one bag at a time. Normally, they would inject five or six bags of heroin at a time. With one bag each of the heroin/fentanyl mixture, "they still got as high as if they had done five bags" of heroin.

When he speaks about his involvement in the drug world, it's as if he's speaking about someone else and, in many ways, he is. He's not the same person who, four years before, after doing other drugs such as alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, tried some heroin because it was at someone's house.

He credits his parents with influencing him to get treatment. He says he was tired of being addicted: "You don't go anywhere in life. You stay in the same place you're at."

His addict friends are happy he got help but have no such plans themselves.

"Some of them have nothing going for them. They don't work. They sit at home. They mooch off their parents. They have no desire to do anything with their lives."

With recovery, his prospects have opened up because he's no longer chained by a constant search for his next high, he said.

"I'm excited to get back out there. When I came in here, I just wanted to get high. After talking to a bunch of people who have gone through the same problems, and a lot of people who seem a lot worse, I just don't have any desire to use anymore"

He said he knew he had much more work to do in his recovery. Among the good choices he has to make are avoiding the "people, places, things" that would trigger a relapse. And that's what he plans to do, including not talking to friends who are addicts.

He knows that if another batch of heroin laced with fentanyl hit the streets, his friends and other heroin addicts "would run for it. [You want to] recapture that initial high."

But, he said, he hopes they, like him, will "stop using because it will cost them their lives if they don't."


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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