Dangerous heroin-fentanyl combination fuels overdoses

"In the Shadow of Death: Jason's Journey" is a multi-part "CBS Evening News" series examining the dangerous opioid epidemic sweeping the nation. See Part 1: A heroin addict's last day before rehab, as 30-year-old addict Jason Amaral begins his path to recovery.


In just one year, more than 29,000 people lost their lives to an overdose of heroin or prescription painkillers -- including OxyContin, hydrocodone and fentanyl. That is an increase of 329 percent since the start of the century.

The frightening rates of overdoses are fueled by a mix of heroin and an opioid called fentanyl -- 30 to 50 times as powerful as heroin itself.

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"There's this misconception that heroin laced with fentanyl is the better high. Conversely, it costs us too many deaths," said Dennis Wichern, with Chicago's drug enforcement agency.

One person dies every day from an overdose in Chicago.

"When they take heroin laced with fentanyl, the purity goes way up and it just over taxes their body. That's where you get the overdoses and the deaths," he said.

Twenty-five-year old Chelsea Blackburn of Pittsburgh, who was on heroin when she got pregnant, said the search for a high can quickly reach a dead end.

"I started on opiates like pain pills, and then by 19 I was like a full-blown heroin addict."

Overdose deaths are highest in West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio. In 2013, there were 84 fentanyl-and-heroin-related deaths in Ohio, but a year later there were 503.

Last month, a surveillance camera captured a drug user collapsing at a Cleveland area restaurant -- falling into unconsciousness, and then being revived by an antidote called Narcan.

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Narcan can be bought over the counter in some states, and has been credited with saving many lives.

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Now, in Ohio's 15 most hard-hit counties, relatives of drug users are being urged to get Narcan -- or Naloxone, as it's also called -- to save lives. It can be obtained without a prescription there.

"We have more unintentional drug overdoses in Ohio than accidental deaths in car accidents. So it's a significant problem, and we want to do everything we can to save lives, and this is one way we can do it," said Dr. Mary Diorio of the State Department of Health.

The Obama administration has proposed a billion dollar plan to fight the heroin and opioid epidemic, but congress has yet to appropriate the money.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, resources are available. Visit one of the links below:

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.