In the same apartment where actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead Sunday from an apparent overdose, with a needle still in his arm, detectives discovered envelopes of heroin branded "Ace of Spades."
That batch of heroin could be one in a string that has claimed lives across the country in recent months. As the drug changes hands, dealers often use filler substances to increase the weight of the product, stretch the supply and up their profit. From there, another stronger opiate is often added to counter the dilution and increase the potency of the batch. In the case of "Ace of Spades," as well as "Income Tax," "Theraflu" and "Bud Ice," that extra ingredient can be fentanyl — a pain medication 100 times stronger than morphine.
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Fentanyl is a drug first developed for palliative care for patients dying of cancer. It is a highly sophisticated, highly addictive opiate, according to Ben Levenson, founder and CEO of Origins Recovery Center. A former user of opiates himself, he now treats addicts, many of whom are dealing with the horrific results of opiate abuse.
Even if Hoffman had gotten heroin from the same dealer multiple times before his death, the strength of the batches he bought could have varied dramatically, Levenson said. Ultimately, a user has no idea what he or she is injecting or how strong it really is.
"He got a hold of something so strong that he died before he could get the needle out of his arm," Levenson said. "That tells you how far he missed the mark on what he expected was in that syringe versus what was really in the syringe."
That type potency can be the result when the batch is mixed at a high level within the supply chain. It is often diluted again as it trickles down to street level, Levenson said, but if it isn't, it can carry a fatal dose.
Dealers putting additives in heroin to stretch the supply isn't a new concept— it's been happening for years. However, fentanyl-laced heroin has been linked to multiple deaths recently, including five overdoses in Long Island, which officials said may have been caused by the same batch that claimed 22 lives in Pennsylvania.
Making the cocktail even more dangerous is the inability to identify it. While officials have found traces of fentanyl in batches named "Ace of Spades," branding doesn't come with consistency in the illegal drug trade.
"It just means a particular dealer went to a head shop and bought a baggie that said 'Ace of Spades,'" Levenson said. "It's not a brand name — there's no way to track this batch of heroin."
Follow Cassandra Garrison on Twitter: @CassieAtMetro