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Health officials encourage heroin users to try a 'test shot' to avoid fatal dose

Thomas Marthisen

The number of heroin-related overdoses continues to rise in upstate, including in central New York. Now one agency that helps addicts is putting more emphasis on a harm-reduction technique called a “test shot.”

Overdose deaths are one way to chronicle the opioid epidemic that’s ravaging central New York. There was one heroin related death in Onondaga County in 2010. This year through September, there have been 46 -- already two more than all of last year. And more than half of those deaths involved heroin laced with fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid pain medication. So when users come across a batch of really potent stuff and shoot their usual amount, the results can be fatal.

"There’s always a bad batch somewhere that you hear about. And unfortunately, the sad thing is generally you hear about it after someone has overdosed or someone has died," said Ryan Barone of ACR Health in Syracuse.

Barone says ACR is encouraging addicts to do a test shot when they have a new bag of heroin that they haven’t used before.

"Instead of shooting their normal dose -- whether it’s one bag, two bags or three bags -- whatever their normal dose is, it consists of them using a little bit, just to test potency and strength,” said Barone. “And if they find it’s stronger on the test shot, they know I’m only going to use a little bit, and naturally they’ll tell friends using that same heroin that you don’t need to use as much.”

Barone says encouraging this practice fits in with other harm prevention techniques ACR outreach professionals talk to addicts about, like using clean needles, or cleaning injection sites. And he finds that many experienced users already do it. But the message becomes much more important in an era where additives like fentynl can turn a batch of heroin into a deadly concoction.

“Fentanyl is very scary. It’s measured in micrograms, so they never know what they’re getting and it’s never straight fentanyl, it’s mixed with other synthetic things. Lord knows what it’s being cut with. And even when you get straight heroin, you don’t know the potency of heroin, how many times that’s been cut,” said Barone. “I heard before that at least 100 people touch somebody’s drugs before they actually get them.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.