SALISBURY — In 2016, Salisbury had a 206 percent increase in the number of drug overdoses, more proof that the potent heroin substitute fentanyl is having a devastating effect on people addicted to drugs.

Salisbury police Chief Thomas Fowler told selectmen on Monday that in 2015, 18 people overdosed on drugs in town, with six dying as a result –  a 33-percent fatality rate. In 2016, however, 55 people overdosed on drugs, with nine dying, a 17-percent fatality rate. 

Fowler believes the widespread availability of the opiate-blocking drug Narcan is why there weren’t more deaths, given the big increase in overdoses. If it’s administered in time, Narcan can revive an unconscious drug overdose victim in a matter of minutes. 

Firefighters and emergency medical technicians carry Narcan and have used it for years, Fowler said. In the past year Salisbury police officers were also trained and equipped with the drug, and use it when they’re the first on the scene of an overdose.    

In addition, he said, the drug is available to private citizens. Family members of those addicted to drugs, he said, and even drug addicts themselves now carry Narcan and know how to use it.  

As for the reason why overdoses skyrocketed this year, Fowler said he believes drug users are being given fentanyl instead of heroin by drug dealers. Heroin is either cut with fentanyl or substituted for it completely, Fowler said. If unsuspecting heroin addicts use fentanyl as they would heroin, overdoses are often the result. 

“Fentanyl is more potent and more deadly,” Fowler said. 

A synthetic form of morphine, fentanyl can be as much as 50 times stronger than heroin. It’s also cheaper for drug dealers to produce than heroin, according to law enforcement officials.

Fowler said Narcan works on fentanyl overdoses if it’s administered in time, but, he added, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is seeing Narcan-resistant types of fentanyl coming into the United States.

“We haven’t seen that here yet,” Fowler said. 

Angeljean Chiaramida can be reached at 978-961-3147 or at achiaramida@newburyportnews.com.

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