CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner and law enforcement officials are sounding the alarm about Fentanyl, an opiate at least 30 times more powerful than heroin, which has led to a climbing number of overdose deaths in the county.
"We have never seen anything comparable to what we're seeing now," said Cuyahoga County medical examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson.
In January 2016 there were 19 overdose deaths due to fentanyl, and 21 due to heroin.
"That's roughly one person a day dying from an overdose of one or both of these drugs and we've not seen that before," said Gilson.
Fentanyl overdose deaths nearly tripled in 2015, reaching 89 cases. About half of those cases involved both heroin and fentanyl. The number of heroin deaths in Cuyahoga County did decrease by more than 7%, to 183 in 2015, which was the lowest number of fatalities since 2012. One explanation for the increased fentanyl deaths may be a pill form of the drug that officials said is being sold as oxycodone, a much less powerful opiate.
"Watch out for this potential mimic which is truly just a horrifying trick I think to play on anybody to see this drug as something far less lethal," said Gilson. "It will wind up, especially if you take a dose comparable, ending your life. There's just nothing that really I can say too many times about that."
Cleveland 19 spoke to a man who has been in heroin recovery for 11 years. He said he thinks he would likely be dead now if he hadn't chosen recovery.
"Especially now with the rise in fentanyl. People don't even understand what they're getting," said Aaron Marks. He is now the chair of the U.S. Attorney's office Prevention and Education Subcommittee, Heroin and Opioid Task Force led by the U.S. Attorney's Office, for the Northern District of Ohio.
He said his story, someone who got a legitimate prescription for pain, that just then spiraled out of control is a common story.
"I was just some kid and came out of a friends parents' medicine cabinet, 'take this,' and I also had my wisdom teeth pulled,"
said Marks. "I think what's really important for people to understand is most people don't seek out heroin and become a heroin addict they get introduced through pharmaceutical pills."
Marks and other experts say that people use pills until they become too expensive, then they turn to heroin or the frightening new drug, fentanyl.
"The face of the addicted is really the face of America," said William Denihan, the CEO for the Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County. He said he hopes people pay attention to how dangerous and deadly opiates can be, but also that there is help available for those who want to treat their addiction.
"This is a massive, massive problem, and people can no longer hide their heads in the sand and say, 'oh you know, well not my community this is everywhere," said Marks.
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