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Fentanyl-laced heroin source in Western Pennsylvania still sought

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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Detective Jerry Kabala gets a thumbs up from his daughter Ryleigh, 4, as he sits with his wife Shannon, at the Law Enforcement Agency Directors (LEAD) Award for Outstanding Performance in Law Enforcement awards on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014 at the University of Pittsburgh's Barco Law School Building in Oakland. Detective Kabala was recognized for his work in operation Dukes of Hazard, an investigation of a violent drug distribution ring operating in Duquesne.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Michael Botticelli, Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy, the keynote speaker at the Law Enforcement Agency Directors (LEAD) Award for Outstanding Performance in Law Enforcement awards, speaks as United States Attorney David Hickton sits by on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014 at the University of Pittsburgh's Barco Law School Building in Oakland.
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Michael Botticelli, Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy, the keynote speaker at the Law Enforcement Agency Directors (LEAD) Award for Outstanding Performance in Law Enforcement awards on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014 at the University of Pittsburgh's Barco Law School Building in Oakland.

Investigators are still looking for the original source of last winter’s deadly batch of fentanyl-laced heroin that killed nearly two dozen Western Pennsylvanians, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said Friday.

“It’s an ongoing investigation,” he said, and officials remain committed to finding the drug.

Hickton spoke after a ceremony to honor several dozen area law enforcement officers for breaking up criminal operations ranging from drug rings to electronic financial scams.

In a weeklong period in January, 22 people died from overdoses linked to the heroin-fentanyl mix. Fentanyl is a powerful narcotic used to treat pain in cancer patients.

Increased abuse of opioids — both prescription drugs and heroin, which is cheaper — is a constant challenge for law enforcement agencies, Michael Botticelli, acting director of National Drug Control Policy, said Friday at the Law Enforcement Agency Directors of Western Pennsylvania awards at the University of Pittsburgh.

The ceremony honored more than 30 law enforcement officers from the state police, Pittsburgh police, the IRS, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s office and Allegheny County.

Botticelli, the White House’s drug czar, and others praised cooperation among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in fighting drug trafficking. Yet drug abuse is rampant nationwide and requires flexibility on the part of law enforcement, he said.

“We know we can’t arrest and incarcerate our way out of this problem. Our nation’s drug problems should not fall entirely on law enforcement,” Botticelli said.

Prevention and drug treatment need to be part of the solution, he said.

Botticelli supports laws like a new one in Pennsylvania that makes naltrexone, an antidote for heroin overdoses, available to police and the public.

The legislation, which takes effect in December, offers immunity from criminal prosecution to those who help overdose victims.

Naltrexone, commonly referred to by the brand name Narcan, reverses the effects of heroin and opioids like oxycodone. Pennsylvania allows paramedics and doctors to use it, but police were not able to legally administer the antidote.

In 2011, Quincy, Mass., became the first U.S. city to require police officers to carry Narcan.

Since then, Botticelli said the drug has saved 300 people in that city.

“Surviving an overdose depends on timely treatment,” he said.

Of the 41,502 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2012, 53 percent were related to pharmaceuticals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Western Pennsylvania, largely driven by Allegheny County, averaged fewer than 60 overdose deaths a year in the 1980s, but had 290 in 2012. The number dropped to 278 last year.

Though the Obama administration is tolerating state laws that have legalized recreational use of marijuana, Botticelli does not support legalization like that which voters approved this week in Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia.

“It’s against federal law. We have every reason to fear how this burgeoning marijuana industry is targeting youth,” said Botticelli, who said marijuana use among teenagers is now more common than tobacco use.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or [email protected].

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