GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan, like the rest of the country, is dealing with a rise in heroin deaths as the drug becomes stronger and cheaper. There are concerns now that the newest versions of the drug — which can be deadly after the first use — could soon be seen in the region.

Heroin cut with fentanyl — a narcotic used to treat pain — has been seen in other parts of the country for some time, but it is only recently that it has been sold here.

“The saying goes with fentanyl, you die before you get high,” Stefan Johnson, a recovering heroin addict, said.

Heroin with carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer, has also been seen elsewhere but has yet to hit West Michigan.

“I’m hoping that it’s not going to be any worse than it is now, but if this carfentanil comes though… Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and carfentanil is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. So if that makes its way to West Michigan, it’s just crazy and scary, very scary,” said Joe Berlin, the head of the Kent County Drug Court.

Berlin, an expert on drug use and addiction in West Michigan, has seen the effects of the fentanyl-cut heroin effects first hand. In the past week, two of his drug court participants died from an overdose.

“These people are in my office one day the next day they’re dead,” Berlin said.

He has a personal connection to the epidemic, too. His niece died using heroin.

“It doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “It doesn’t discriminate.”

Wednesday was International Overdose Awareness Day. Data shows 32 people in Kent County died of heroin overdoses in 2015, which is a big increase from the 18 reported in 2014 and huge jump from just seven deaths a decade ago.

Berlin thinks the actual number is much higher because heroin metabolizes so quickly, which makes it harder to detect as the cause of death. He says that after about 12 or 14 hours, heroin turns into morphine.

Stefan Johnson almost died about a year ago when he used a batch of heroin with fentanyl, but survived because his friend had a Narcan pen. Narcan, nor naloxone, is a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose if administered quickly.

He said users used to go to the Detroit area to get fentanyl-cut heroin, but it started being sold in West Michigan around last fall.

“Started seeing it more and more and more,” he said. “I think you are going to see the number of overdoses related to heroin go up because that dope came into West Michigan and if the carfentanil comes in, that’s going to cause the number of ODs to go up as well.”

Johnson has spent the past few years in and out of court and jail — not the life you would expect for a son of a dentist and interior designer from Ionia.

“I was really involved in the community. I played sports growing up. I was academically involved. I was on the quiz bowl team and tennis,” he recalled.

His first drug dealer was his doctor.

“I was first introduced to prescription drugs when I got into a car accident,” he said.

At 16, he was prescribed Vicodin and he was hooked.

“They made me feel like superman almost,” he said.

He worked his way up to the opioid OxyContin, but then the makers of that drug made changed the formula so it could no longer be smashed into a powder for users to get high.

“At that point, most OxyContin dealers started selling heroin and at that point I was so addicted, I took what I could get,” he said.

Johnson and thousands of other users across West Michigan made the switch, resulting in a spike in deaths.

He is now working to stay sober through a Kent County Drug Court program.

He thinks the solution is educating the public that the addiction is a disease rather than a moral deficiency. He said that instead of throwing users in jail, the addiction needs to be treated through programs like drug courts.

“I think they (the number of deaths) are going to go up before they go down, but I think we are making progress,” he said.

In July, President Barack Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act — the first major federal addiction legislation in 40 years. CARA authorizes more than $181 million each year in new funding to fight the opioid epidemic.

Additionally, Michigan legislators are considering as good Samaritan law that would  protect people who call 911 to report an overdose from arrest and/or prosecution for simple drug possession or being under the influence. The law does not protect individuals with large amounts of drugs for the purpose of selling or trafficking.

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The Grand Rapids Red Project