Heroin Deaths: Pure Speculation

Potency may not have been the paramount issue in a recent spate of overdoses.

Despite the warning issued last month in the wake of seven Seattle-area needle deaths, which were followed by seven more deaths last week in the Longview/Kelso area—all 14 reportedly attributed to unusually potent or lethally laced heroin—King County officials say they’ve found no proof that the seven deaths here were in fact due to a high-purity strain of the drug.

In response to Seattle Weekly‘s request for an update on postmortem findings on the seven local victims, the city/county Public Health Department announced that blood tests failed to show potency or additives as a factor. Blood tests did not indicate anything unusual, says Public Health spokesperson Hilary Karasz, which would have been the case if the heroin had been more pure than expected. “The heroin samples that were retrieved had different physical characteristics, indicating it wasn’t from a common source, and there was nothing that tied the individuals together that might have suggested they got the heroin from a common source,” Karasz says.

In addition, the seven who died in King County overdosed from a combination of heroin and other drugs, tests show.

The department’s drug-bulletin alert, warning users to beware of possible potency and poisons, was issued March 6 after a three-day spike in heroin deaths. But as Karasz puts it, “the spike over that short period of time may have been due to chance.” Nonetheless, she adds, “their deaths do underscore that heroin is a dangerous drug: Sixty-six people died from heroin overdose in King County in 2011. People should refrain from using heroin, but if they do, it’s critically important that they never mix heroin with any other drug and never shoot alone.”

Narcan (naloxone), which can save a life in the event of an overdose, is available at the Downtown Needle Exchange program and elsewhere in the community. Also, if 911 has to be called, the state’s Good Samaritan law protects bystanders and users from prosecution when emergency and police crews respond and small amounts of drugs are present, Karasz notes.

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