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Laced heroin suspected to have caused 7 deaths in 24 hours, officials say

National Public Radio

A deadly batch of heroin is suspected in the deaths of seven Erie County residents in one day - the average number of overdose deaths in a week.

"If you've got drugs that you purchased in the last 24 hours, heroin and whatever you want to call it, smack, if you've got it, get rid of it," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. "Otherwise, you may become a statistic."

He issued the warning during a hastily-called news conference late Thursday, as the dimensions of the death toll became apparent.

"To give you an idea why this is such a worry, in 2016, the average deaths per week were 5.8 deaths per week in Erie County, as there were a little less than 320 deaths estimated at this point, Poloncarz said. "In 2017, we're averaging 6.8 deaths per week. So, in the last 24 hours, we have had the equivalent of one week's worth of deaths."

No names were released, but officials said there were six men and one woman, average age 32, the majority from outside the City of Buffalo. Tests are not complete and will take weeks, but first responders reported the deaths as apparent overdoses.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, the point person in the fight against opioids, urged people to dump their drugs and possibly live. Officials believe a batch of heroin sold during the last few days was mixed with something even more lethal.

Credit WBFO's Mike Desmond
Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein encourages drug users to get help breaking their habit.

"They would be very, very sad, miss you so much if something bad happened," she said. "We know that this death occurs instantaneously. This is very, very potent drug and it works instantaneously and many people, even if they have naloxone with them, they may not even have time to reach out and get it to save their lives."

There is increasing concern about ever-more dangerous drugs and components appearing on the street. One of those is carfentanil, recently blamed for a fatal overdose in Ontario's Niagara Region, according to toxicity tests.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said he can charge whoever supplied the drugs.

"If I can prove it and under New York State, it's a little more difficult to prove, but I'm willing to be the test case for it," he said. "If I can prove it, I will charge a drug dealer with murder, if, like I said, I can prove this particular drug dealer gave this particular batch to the individual who died."

Flynn said it has been almost a half-century since a criminal charge in an overdose has gone to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

County officials also stressed the help available for those with a drug problem.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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