21 Dead From 'China White' Drug Sold As Heroin

Posted: November 06, 1992

Philadelphia's hapless junkies have a new reason to dread life: an enormously powerful drug being peddled here as heroin can now be blamed for killing 21 people in 10 weeks, making us one of the nation's biggest pockets of designer-drug death.

The killing has grown to such an alarming level that the city Health Department yesterday issued another public health advisory. It was its second alarm in six weeks on the drug fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller nicknamed China White that is cooked up in illegal laboratories and peddled as extra- pure heroin.

Drug addicts, mostly in South and West Philadelphia, continue to drop dead

from overdoses at the rate of about two per week, officials said. And since most of the dead were found to have combined fentanyl with either heroin or cocaine, it appears that the designer drug is being peddled as something else.

"When people are buying it, they really think they are buying heroin," said Mary Vaira, spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration office here.

Death, though, can come with a $20 bag of white powder.

Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than heroin, authorities say, and a grain the size of a pin tip can kill. In fact, said Dr. Haresh Mirchandani, the city medical examiner, the drug is so unpredictable that the only certainty is that there is no safe dosage.

"Death is very rapid with this substance," said Mirchandani. "You can die without getting high."

A 36-year-old Grays Ferry junkie who knows several people who died from fentanyl overdoses said recently that he was inclined to try some of the killer dope - even though it might kill him.

"I'll tell you how the sick mind of a junkie works," he said. "Junkies are so f - - - ed up that when I hear that somebody ODs, I think to myself, 'That must be good stuff.' I want to try it. I know it might be cut with some kind of poison, but I want to see how high it gets you. Junkies are always looking for a better high.

"I know it's a risk. I've been thinking I'm going to try it."

Generally, the fentanyl found on the street is a designer drug, which means its chemistry is slightly different than the fentanyl sold by legitimate pharmaceutical manufacturers as a pre-surgery sedative and as a painkiller.

The chief difference: the stuff sold on the street is more powerful, said the city medical examiner.

City officials continue to try to warn drug abusers of fentanyl's dangers. There have been at least 10 fentanyl deaths since the city's first public health warning Sept. 24.

"This is one of the largest number of overdoses in any of the cities where this stuff has hit," said the DEA's Mary Vaira. "That is a substantial number of deaths for one city."

Police narcotics investigators say they have been making increasing arrests for heroin in recent months and are finding purer and more powerful heroin than ever. But they have seen no fentanyl, unless it is disguised as heroin.

The rash of deaths is unlikely to last much longer. Fentanyl has surfaced in other cities, killed for a few months, then disappeared. It killed at least 21 people in Pittsburgh last summer, but vanished after the arrest of a water- treatment chemist.

Philadelphia's source of fentanyl has so far proved elusive. Federal narcs are working on the case, officials said, but are still unsure whether it comes

from a clandestine laboratory or from a pharmaceutical theft.

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