The Watch with Will Kennedy: Hidden Menace in Charlotte Heroin

CHARLOTTE, NC — Startling new information about the number of heroin overdoses and arrests here in the Charlotte area. In this Watch, we’ve also learned another, more powerful, deadly drug is being mixed in with the local supply. Making the battle to stop heroin trafficking even more urgent.

“It has become an epidemic,” says CMPD Captain Mike Harris.

An unprecedented epidemic in the Charlotte area.

“We’ve seen an explosion of heroin-related cases in the last two or three years,” says Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Davis.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police saw heroin-related arrests jump 18% in 2016. Heroin-related overdoses are up 55% overall. And those numbers hold across the city.

“Once you’re addicted, it is extremely hard to get off,” says Harris. “And as an agency, and as a community, we have to look at it as an epidemic and a crisis.”

The demographics on who is addicted to heroin have changed dramatically. It’s now predominantly young, white people.

CMPD stats show that in Charlotte, white men between 20-and-49 years old make up 58% of overdose victims. And the number of white women between 20-and-39 overdosing more than doubled last year, jumping from 28 in 2015 to 60 in 2016.

But heroin addiction doesn’t discriminate.

“It’s not discriminating against anybody,” says Capt. Harris. “Rich, poor, white, black, Hispanic it does not matter.”

“It crosses all lines of gender, race, age, socioeconomic status,” says Davis. “Everyone.”‘

This sharp increase in opiate-related overdoses is being attributed in large part to a drug even more addictive and powerful than pure heroin.

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate that is 100 times more powerful than heroin,” says Davis. “And so if you have a heroin user who is used to ingesting pure heroin, and they get a batch of heroin that’s laced with fentanyl, it could be deadly.”

Fentanyl is so potent that a few grains can be deadly.

It can be injected, ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. And because dealers cut other drugs, like heroin, with it, fentanyl is often a hidden menace.

Music legend Prince died from an accidental overdose of the drug last year. Autopsy results showed the levels of fentanyl in his system when he died were more than enough to be toxic.

And CMPD says the increasing overdose numbers in Charlotte are likely due to the continued rise in fentanyl usage, and its contamination of local heroin.

“That’s where our overdoses, and our fatal overdoses, are coming from is this laced heroin or fentanyl-based drugs that’s coming into the system,” explains Harris.

CMPD and the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s office are working with surrounding local agencies and the feds to fight the flow of heroin to the area, trying to attack the Mexican cartels that traffic the drugs.

“We have a lot of sellers and traffickers in Mecklenburg, and those are the people that we want to put in prison,” says Davis.

“We have to make sure we get the right people, at the right time, in jail,” says Harris. “And basically dismantle a lot of these organizations.”

The DA’s office tries to steer people gripped by heroin addiction into treatment programs. But sometimes, the drug is just too powerful.

“As the case moves through the court system, we would get obituary notices from their defense attorney,” says Davis. “Letting us know the defendant is deceased, from an overdose.”

The DEA says fentanyl is a “grave threat” to first responders, officers and police dogs; who can be exposed to unseen or unknown fentanyl at a scene. CMPD often has a hazmat team standing by if it suspects the drug may be present at a bust.