ST. TAMMANY PARISH, LA (WVUE) - The St. Tammany Parish coroner is warning drug users of an extremely deadly drug, and the warning comes on the heels of a big increase in the number of heroin and other drug deaths and arrests last year.
"Heroin use is up in St. Tammany and across the New Orleans metro area," said Keith Brown with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
More than 100 people were arrested for heroin last year, nearly five times more than previous years.
"This is such a horrible drug, and we've seen lives totally destroyed," Sheriff Jack Strain said.
Strain believes its resurgence may have been prompted by a a crackdown on prescription drug abuse.
"As we went aggressively after [pills], it made it harder to find them so they went for heroin - a cheap alternative," Strain said.
Heroin killed 14 people in St. Tammany Parish last year, but officials now worry about a more deadly menace.
"I've got to tell you this is a whole new animal," Coroner Charles Preston said.
Preston is talking about the emergence of a new heroin-like synthetic drug, called acetyl fentanyl, which can kill instantly and claimed three St. Tammany victims last year.
"Two of the cases, they found the body with the needle in the arm," Preston said.
He says the drug is cheap and mass-produced in China.
"Fentanyl is one of the most powerful painkillers manufactured. You see it in end-of-life situations," said Brown.
St. Tammany is by no means alone. Illicit drug use is a national epidemic, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse says when it comes to fatally injured drivers, one in three tests positive for drugs.
"It starts with prescription drugs, and kids getting hooked - and graduating," said Brown.
With a new crime lab coming online this month, and help from the Slidell and Mandeville police departments, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office formed a 22-person unit to go after fentanyl, and the fight will intensify in 2015.
"We're gonna make it impossible for them to deal. My commitment is we will pursue," said Strain.
Police promise to keep up the pressure, but they make a sad prediction based on experience. As they go after one type of drug, another will likely pop up in it's place.
Preston says fentanyl is so lethal that conventional treatments fail even if the user makes it to the emergency room.
He wants to warn users, that their high-risk behavior, "has become even riskier."