New Drugs Used to Battle Heroin Raise Questions

MOUNDSVILLE – Today’s unfortunate reality is that overdoses are a daily occurrence in the Ohio Valley.

Now, first responders – and even family members – have a new tool to assist in helping those victims.

A West Virginia law passed this year could be helpful to addicts and their families, officials say. The opiate antidote naloxone, branded as Narcan, is now legal for parents and others to use on an overdose victim for quick help before an ambulance arrives. Under current state law, only trained first responders are allowed to administer the drug.

U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld said his office is working with Northern Panhandle law enforcement agencies to make Narcan available for officers to administer.

“Narcan saves lives and therefore it’s a very important tool that’s available for use by law enforcement officers and other first responders. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has plans to partner with law enforcement agencies in northern West Virginia to increase the availability and use of Narcan,” Ihlenfeld said. “West Virginia law also allows for friends and relatives of opioid addicts to carry and administer Narcan. I would encourage anyone who lives with an opioid addict, or who is frequently in the presence of an opioid addict, to obtain a prescription for Narcan.”

The drug is a synthetic form of oxymorphone. A water-soluble white powder, the drug is usually administered as a nasal spray, intravenously or as an auto-injecter device to an overdosed individual.

Marshall County Sheriff Kevin Cecil said overdoses are occurring in the area at an alarming rate. Cecil said he saw an average of three overdoses per week this summer, mostly from heroin.

Cecil’s deputies do not currently use Narcan and must rely on local emergency service staff to administer all medical needs to overdose victims. He added there are some concerns within his department on administering the drug.

“This is definitely something we will consider, but I want to look at our rights and the side effects, if any,” Cecil said. “Administering drugs is not something we typically do, but we are willing to do whatever we need to do in our power to keep the community safe. I do wonder if the substance doesn’t work or reacts poorly to a certain drug, what liability we will have, which is something I am looking into.”

Ohio County Sheriff Pat Butler said his staff also has not used Narcan, but is “working with the U.S. attorney’s office for more information.”

Cecil added popular heroin additives, such as synthetic versions of the painkiller fentanyl, make overdose responses tricky.

“Heroin is not a controllable substance, so we never know what it’s mixed with going in,” Cecil said. “We are always willing to learn and keep our eyes open.”

According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Narcan can now be purchased at various pharmacies and other pharmaceutical providers. The department’s online Narcan information states anyone administering the drug must seek medical attention for the overdose victim immediately after to avoid side effects and complications.

What makes the matter even more complicated is that heroin laced with other drugs is being used locally.

According to staff at Wheeling’s Recovery Based Outpatient Opioid Treatment Services, batches of heroin laced with fentanyl are coming to the valley at an alarming rate. Fentanyl, an opiate medication, is used as part of anesthesia to help prevent pain after surgery or other medical procedures. It can also be found in patch form and is often used to ease pain associated with terminal illnesses and cancers.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Jeff Richmond, the additive makes heroin even more unpredictable and dangerous, as many users are not aware they are in possession of laced batches. He added the drug is added to low-grade heroin to make the substance seem more potent, as fentanyl is 10 times stronger than heroin alone.

“A lot of the fentanyl we’re seeing now … is being illegally manufactured. It is relatively easy to make and is being produced by Mexican cartels,” Richmond said. “It’s so hard to measure and extremely potent. They will add a little bit of fentanyl to make it a better product; unfortunately, if they put just a bit too much, people start dying.”

The ROOTS recovery program uses a series of outpatient methods to assist recovering addicts on their health journeys. Richmond and fellow psychiatrist Dr. Ryan Wakim use a combination of medically approved opiate substitutes like Suboxone and Subutex coupled with counseling sessions and follow-up.

Wakim said although much of the valley’s heroin supply is linked to Pittsburgh and Cleveland, it can be difficult to source the laced batches.

“The reason heroin is becoming so prevalent is that larger drug cartels have found what they call runners locally,” Wakim said. “They’ll send maybe 10 people from here with a small amount of heroin that would be under felony level so if they get caught it’s hard to pinpoint on one person or area, making the system very tough to track.”