Credit: chrisinphilly5448/Flickr

Out in my section of the Philly suburbs, we read news like this about our 62 year old neighbor getting arrested for selling heroin after getting hooked because a doctor prescribed them post-operative opioids despite her history of alcoholism. Just another day in my hood. In the city, however, this week has been historic.

Last weekend’s frightening and widely reported string of overdoses in Philadelphia — nine deaths in 36 hours, according to police — was just part of what officials  suspect was a devastating five days that left 35 people dead.

It started Dec. 1, when 12 people died between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. “We have never seen that before,” said Sam P. Gulino, the city’s chief medical examiner.

Then came four more deaths last Friday, seven on Saturday, nine on Sunday, and three on Monday.  The total could still rise, as deaths that initially appeared natural are investigated for drug links.

The overdoses may have resulted from heroin that was cut with more powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. But police said there were other possibilities, such as the appearance of heroin that was more pure than the users were accustomed to.

Here’s the general state of the news in the Philly metro area:


  • Havertown couple who lost fathers to heroin now mourn friend who OD’d in Kensington

  • New Jersey’s overdose nightmare hits a new peak

  • Main Line woman, 62, gets jail for selling heroin out of home

  • Jury convicts Philly doctor who ran pill mills

  • S. Jersey mom pleads guilty in baby’s methadone death

One of the reasons so many people support the idea of building a wall between our country and Mexico is because most of the heroin in this country is now coming from Mexico. The problem is bigger than that, though. Most people don’t use heroin until they are already addicted to opioids, and far too many people get addicted to opioids because a doctor tells them to take opioids without doing enough to explore the patient’s personal and family history of addiction or limiting how many pills they prescribe or doing sufficient aftercare to keep on top of emerging dependency.

Then there’s the problem that we may be having in Philly right now where people are buying what they think is heroin but may in fact be something stronger, or perhaps it’s just really pure heroin or a combination of heroin and fentanyl, or even opioids and non-opioids. A lot of fatal heroin overdoses turn out to be cases where numerous different drugs were taken at the same time, either intentionally or unintentionally.

It’s killing a lot of people, and cutting off the supply of heroin from Mexico (even if this were possible) wouldn’t solve it. In fact, heroin use spiked when it got harder to get Oxy-Contins and other prescription opioids. The problem is people are addicted and they’ll use whatever they can get.

We can try a lot of different things, but the two most productive are preventing people from getting addicted in the first place and then treating people who have become addicted. We have a lot of work to do on both of those fronts.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at