Each tiny heroin bag was hand-stamped “Breaking Bad.” The name, a nod to the TV show about a teacher turned meth cook, was a colorful marketing ploy. And customers asked for it specifically. Demanded it, really. That tan powder was potent. Better than anything else on the streets.
One Breaking Bad dealer in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., noted how this heroin seemed different, according to court documents. He sold one customer some bags stamped “Dunkin Donuts,” and that customer came right back after shooting up: No, I need that Breaking Bad.
Then came the overdose deaths. They started with a 20-year-old man in Beekman, N.Y. Then a 35-year-old woman in New Milford, Conn. Followed by a 31-year-old man in Pawling, N.Y. Others had to be resuscitated at hospitals.
All had used Breaking Bad heroin, police said.
Heroin is a risky drug. The chance of a fatal overdose is much higher than with cocaine or meth. But what made this brand particularly lethal was revealed only in postmortem toxicology tests: The powder was a mixture of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that is 30 to 40 times stronger.
Fentanyl is prescribed to alleviate the worst pain of cancer patients and other chronic pain sufferers. The drug is so powerful that prescriptions are written out in microgram dosages. Sprinkling just a few grains into a heroin batch can deliver a powerful kick, making it attractive to heroin suppliers looking for a market edge.
“Add fentanyl to heroin, its potency goes through the roof,” said Jack Riley, acting deputy administrator at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “Now, all of a sudden they have something people are dying for on the street.”
And die they do. Across the nation, fentanyl has been turning up in heroin, causing overdoses for unsuspecting addicts and leading to urgent public health warnings.
Earlier this year, 30 overdoses and two deaths in Marion, Ohio, were blamed on fentanyl-laced heroin. The batch was dyed blue and known as “Blue Drop.” Last year, 22 deaths in one week in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania were tied to fentanyl-laced heroin sold in bags stamped “Theraflu.”
In March, the DEA issued a nationwide health alert on fentanyl, reporting that state and local drug labs reported seeing 3,344 fentanyl samples in 2014, up from 942 in 2013.
The mystery is that no one knows where the fentanyl comes from. The drug is not being diverted from pharmacies or hospitals, according to the DEA. The massive amounts turning up across the country suggest clandestine labs in Mexico, the main source for heroin in the United States.
The last major outbreak of fentanyl-related deaths began in 2005 and lasted for two years, killing more than 1,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The deaths began to subside once authorities shut down a clandestine fentanyl lab in Toluca, Mexico, in mid-2006.
Some drug researchers believe clandestine fentanyl is being shipped in bulk to Mexico from China. They suspect the same thing happens with precursor drugs needed to illegally manufacture methamphetamine.
Earlier this year, the Breaking Bad dealer pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute heroin and fentanyl resulting in death. Dennis Sica is to be sentenced Oct. 8.
A friend of Sica’s wrote a letter to the federal judge who will decide his fate. She asked for mercy. Sica was addicted, just like his customers, she wrote. He hadn’t pushed Breaking Bad on anyone, because he didn’t have to.
“Like nothing else,” she wrote, “heroin sells itself.”