Killer Drug: Seven Fatal Heroin Overdoses Reminiscent of Seattle's 'Junkie Town' Days

Heroin likely enabled rocker Kurt Cobain to take his life with a shotgun in 1994, and it was the drug most responsible for killing singer Layne Staley in 2002. In between, the heroin death rate soared as high as 144 in 1998, prompting Rolling Stone to label Seattle "junkie town." Today the body count is about a third of that and heroin is thought to be relatively under control. But the rate has briefly spiked again, with seven deaths in three recent days, and county health officials worry that some heroin is showing up too pure or has been cut with a lethal additive.

"We have not yet been able to get any information related to the cause of the spike," Public Health spokesperson Hilary Karasz told us yesterday. "We are working with DEA to try to get the samples tested, and we don't know yet when, or whether we'll find out anything that will help us determine if there was anything in particular about the heroin that these people took that contributed to the increase in death."

From Saturday through Monday, the King County Medical Examiner's office picked up bodies from seven death scenes in the city and county, where users young and old, experienced and not, shot up and died. They ranged in age from 17 to 61 but little information is so far being released about them.

"These death investigations are ongoing, so we're not in a position to provide additional information related to the individuals until they are complete," says Karasz.

The one upside is that since officials began notifying the public through the media about the special dangers of this run of heroin, there have so far been no further deaths. Her department is warning users not to shoot up alone, says Karasz. Also, "they should use less - or a 'test shot' - if they are buying from someone new, or if it looks different than the heroin they've bought in the past.

"And they should not use heroin in combination with other drugs, including benzos, other opioids, alcohol, cocaine, or other stimulants like methamphetamine."

When you have the government advising citizens on the proper way to take illegal drugs, it's obviously an urgent situation. But it is also the enlightened approach.

It's why the health department provides clean needles to users, and even will supply them with a drug called Narcan which helps reverse the effects of overdoses.

As well, anyone who calls 911 to report a person overdosing is immune from criminal prosecution for drug possession, as is the victim, thanks to a 2010 Good Samaritan law.

Overdosing on drugs of all kinds kills more than two people per day in Washington state, according to the law's web page, and more Washingtonians die every year from overdoses than from car crashes.

"Most drug overdoses involve a prescription medication used with other drugs or alcohol," the site reminds us. And "most of these deaths can be prevented with fast medical help."

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