Fentanyl-laced heroin making overdose problem worse, authorities say

Five years ago in Buncombe County, nobody died from a heroin overdose, but that's changed. One reason for the change is because of a drug called fentanyl that people are adding to heroin.

The county is working on a plan to reverse the trend.

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"It started after a surgery that I had," said Marcia Medford, who is in recovery from opioid addiction.

"I started with Percocet, and that graduated into Oxycontin. And I was doing research on the internet and discovered the fentanyl patch, and, you know, my mind clicked. I thought, oh that's what I should try to get from my doctor," Medford said.

Fentanyl is an opioid the DEA said is 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Medford got a prescription for it and became addicted.

Overdose death data isn't available yet for 2016, but 14 people died from heroin overdoes in Buncombe County in 2015.

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Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan said a few years ago dealers started cutting heroin with synthetic fentanyl. Duncan said it's cheap and users may not even know they're consuming it. Therefore, they don't know how strong the heroin is, which can result in overdoses.

"It's truly like loading a cylinder in a revolver and spinning it and pulling the trigger, because you have no idea what you're going to get if you take a shot of fentanyl," Duncan said.

Duncan and District Attorney Todd Williams said tough law enforcement is needed when it comes to drug dealers, but they think addiction should be treated the same way other diseases are.

"There's no need to shovel dirt in the hole as folks are trying to heal," Williams said.

He wants to put the community on notice he can and will charge dealers with murder. But he thinks the law can be a tool. Williams wants to help users who are appearing in court for the first time.

"You've got a charge, how can we wake you up, snap you out of that? With diversion, we're offering the dismissal of your charge if you comply," Williams said.

Williams is developing a plan to drop the charge if a first-time offender stays clean, doesn't pick up any new charges and goes to peer-to-peer counseling.

The counseling is where Medford comes in, because Williams is working with her employer to develop the details.

"We just take people by the hand and walk with them," said Medford, who is now a state certified peer support specialist.

"We're able to do this, because we have past personal experiences with substance use," she said.

Medford's been in recovery for more than a decade. There was a time family saw her on the news for the wrong reasons, but Medford said she would gladly show her daughter this story.

"She's going to be proud of me," Medford said.

Medford shared her story to provide hope.

"I've been there. I've done it and I survived it," Medford said.

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