Is a Novel Form of Heroin Killing People on the East Coast?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 3 2014 3:17 PM

What’s in “Bad Heroin”?

The mysterious drug cocktail that may have killed Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman arrives for a screening of The Master during the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 1, 2012.

Photo by Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on Sunday. The cause of death is presumed to be a drug overdose, possibly involving a batch of so-called “bad heroin” that has caused problems on the East Coast. Is there a novel form of deadly heroin on the street?

Not really. Authorities in several states have sent out “contaminated heroin” alerts in recent weeks. The problem batches contain the prescription narcotic fentanyl, either mislabeled as heroin or mixed with heroin and sold under a brand name such as “magic,” “Theraflu,” or “Bud Ice.” Fentanyl is closely related to heroin but cheaper and between 50 to 80 times more potent, making it an appealing substitute for drug dealers and users. Many drug-screening tests fail to detect fentanyl, because its concentration in a user’s urine is typically lower than that of heroin.

The fentanyl-heroin cocktail is nothing new; the combination has been available on the street since the 1970s. Fentanyl abuse kills dozens of people annually, often because users apparently misjudge the strength of a dose. We do appear to be experiencing a surge in fentanyl-related deaths right now—22 people are believed to have died from these contaminated heroin supplies in six Pennsylvania counties alone. Such outbreaks seem to occur every few years, as drug suppliers find a prolific and cheap source of fentanyl or this particular drug cocktail gains popularity on the street.

Advertisement

The most significant outbreak of fentanyl-related deaths came in 2005–2006, when nearly 1,000 people died from fentanyl nationwide. The outbreak was of particular concern to drug-control authorities because it happened on a national scale. (Most fentanyl death waves are localized.) The vast majority of the street fentanyl was eventually traced to a single factory in Toluca, Mexico. When Mexican authorities raided the factory in May 2006, the death rate from fentanyl quickly returned to background levels. It isn’t yet clear whether the current increase in fentanyl-related deaths is traceable to a single source or whether the illicit manufacture of the drug has diversified in response to law enforcement pressure.

Fentanyl appears to be a favorite mixer among drug dealers and abusers, as authorities have also seized mixtures of the prescription drug with cocaine. The ratio of the drugs in the cocktail varies widely, which is one of the reasons these combinations are so dangerous—the user doesn’t know exactly what he’s taking. Some packets of cocaine contain just trace amounts of fentanyl, while others are up to one-quarter fentanyl. Heroin-fentanyl mixtures often include as much as 50 percent fentanyl.

See more of Slate's coverage of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The First Case of Ebola in America Has Been Diagnosed in Dallas

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Mad About Modi


Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.


Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Don’t Panic! The U.S. Already Stops Ebola and Similar Diseases From Spreading. Here’s How.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 6:59 PM The Democrats’ War at Home Can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.