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Fentanyl Use A Growing Problem In New Jersey

RAMSEY, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- When Prince died, the medical examiner ruled his death as an overdose from the powerful painkiller fentanyl. At the time, not many knew about the drug, but in New Jersey over the past few years, it's been on the rise.

As CBS2's Esha Ray reported, Linda Lajterman's son, Daniel, was a star on his high school football team in Ramsey. He had dreams to attend Florida State University with his girlfriend. But two years ago, on a Sunday in February, those dreams were shattered when Linda and her husband found Daniel slumped over in his room, dead from a drug overdose.

"The most horrific moment of my life," Linda said. "It took me therapy and some EMDR to get that vision out of my head, because when I thought of my son, all I could see was the way we found him."

Along with heroin, the medical examiner and Bergen County prosecutor found fentanyl, a powerful opioid, in Daniel's system. It was sold to him by a school friend.

"He trusted him," Linda said. "He had no idea that what you could be buying may not be what you thought it was."

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl is a synthetic drug that is often mixed with heroin and 40 to 50 times more powerful.

"It's synthetic storm that's really developing here, not only in New Jersey but throughout the nation," said Joseph Coronato, the prosecutor in Ocean County. "The bottom line is I think that the worst is yet to come."

In 2015, Ocean County saw 15 fentanyl-related deaths in the first six months, one of the highest rates in the state.

Fentanyl is often packaged to look like other painkillers, so Coronato said it's hard to track. In fact, it's nothing like other painkillers. Just a few micrograms can kill you.

"If you consume heroin or if you consume fentanyl or any kind of synthetic opiate, it's not if you're going to die, it's when you're going to die," Coronato said.

Fentanyl originally came into the market in the 1960s to help patients deal with pain, but over the years, the DEA says, drug cartels have found cheaper ways to produce it, making it more deadly.

Coronato said dealers will often mix it into their product to give a more powerful high and then sell it to customers who dont know what they're getting.

With antidotes like narcan becoming more powerful, Coronato said the county has been able to reverse more drug overdoses this year than ever, but faced with fentanyl, it's become a race against the clock when just a whiff can be a death sentence.

In New York City, the Health Department said fentanyl-related deaths accounted for 15 percent of drug overdoses in 2015, compared to less than 3 percent in previous years.

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