They call it gunpowder

Extra strong heroin is said to be causing a rash of overdoses, but San Francisco officials are in the dark


At needle exchange sites around San Francisco, fliers are handed out to intravenous drug users warning them about a new and very potent form of heroin thought to be responsible for a dramatic increase in recent overdoses.

"Gunpowder heroin," as it's often called on the street, began infiltrating the city's illegal drug market back around February, according to widespread reports from various needle exchange participants. Yet public officials appear to be in the dark about the epidemic, partly because budget cuts have created long backlogs for toxicology tests and partly due to indifference about the safety of drug users.

The reports were gathered by the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education Project from their network of needle exchange programs and analyzed by Project Manager Eliza Wheeler. She noticed the trend in April, and a flood of reports followed through May. It soon became clear that she was witnessing a potentially deadly spike in heroin-related overdoses.

"The whole city is reporting strong stuff," Wheeler told us. "People are overdosing left and right."

From January through May, 99 heroin-related overdoses were reported. The largest number of overdoses occurred in May with a staggering 40 reports. Wheeler says that an average month has 12 overdoses.

While those directly involved with San Francisco's drug-using population seem to know all about the increase in overdoses, city and hospital officials seem to know nothing about it.

After checking with local police precincts in drug zones such as the Mission and Tenderloin, SFPD spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak told us officers haven't come in contact with a strong batch of heroin and they are unfamiliar with the term "gunpowder heroin."

According to Tenderloin Police Captain John Garrity, undercover and street officers only test controlled substances for positive or negative results. They do not test the drugs' potency or chemical make-up. Garrity told us that the cops haven't dealt much with opiate-related overdoses since the widespread availability of naxolone, an opiate overdose antidote commonly known by its brand name Narcan.

"We don't see the overdoses anymore," Garrity told us, "not for the last 20 years, not since Narcan came out."

SF General, St. Mary's, and St. Francis hospitals all say their emergency rooms haven't seen an increase in heroin overdoses either and are also unfamiliar with the term "gunpowder heroin."

It seems the city is content with letting nonprofit needle exchanges and programs like the DOPE Project deal with its opiate-using population. Although the DPH does fund and collaborate with many service providers, it rests the bulk of the responsibility on the drug users themselves.

While needle exchange programs combat blood borne diseases like hepatitis C and HIV, which can be contracted through sharing needles and other paraphernalia, DOPE attempts to educate users and prevent fatal opiate overdoses. The DOPE Project, funded through DPH, works with needle exchange programs to provide opiate users with a take home prescription of naloxone, which can be administered from a nasal spray or injected from a vial. At the exchange, if a returning drug user is re-supplying naxolone, he or she is asked "Did you lose it or use it?" If it was used, a report is made.

All the reports gathered by the DOPE Project are of overdose reversals, none of the reports are fatal, thanks to widespread availability of naxolone and the drug using population who use it. That doesn't mean people haven't died. In fact, a rash of fatal overdoses is rumored to have occurred. The suspected culprit: gunpowder heroin.


First, thank you to the Bay Guardian for printing this story about the recent reports of stronger-than-usual heroin in SF. Harm Reduction programs in SF have been working extremely hard to spread the word and ensure that people have naloxone in case they witness an overdose. As the article states, we have received nearly 100 reports of people using their naloxone to reverse an overdose since January. The majority of the overdose situations that were reported to us involved this stronger heroin (some refer to it as gunpowder, some don't).

I am concerned with Dr. Gurley's statements in this article:

"'Gunpowder is very dangerous," says Dr. Gurely. "It takes a phenomenal amount of antidote vials to reverse the overdose."...With a normal heroin overdose only half a vial is needed, but multiple vials are needed when dealing with gunpowder, she adds. "A person could die on you with a vial in your hand," Dr. Gurely said. "Most people don't walk around with six or seven vials of Narcan."

Of the 100 reports of naloxone use by our trained participants, not one required an unusual amount of naloxone and almost all specified that "gunpowder" or especially strong heroin was used. All of the overdose reversals reported back to us required one or two doses of naloxone to successfully revive the person. Also, we never recommend the use of "half a vial" to reverse a "normal heroin overdose." The recommendation is that 1cc of injectable naloxone is used (a full vial) and after 2-3 minutes, a second dose is administered if necessary. With intranasal naloxone, a dose of 2ccs is administered nasally, and after 2-3 minutes a second dose of 2ccs can be administered if there is no response.

We wish that Dr. Gurley had checked with us to see if in fact we were getting reports of an unusual amount of naloxone use per overdose instead of making misleading statements to the press.

We would also like to thank the drug users of SF for reversing nearly 100 overdoses (and these are just the ones that have been reported back to us) in the last few months. You are life-savers.

--Eliza Wheeler
DOPE Project, SF

Posted by DOPEProject on Jun. 22, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

..."heroin users who say they are often marginalized and seen as not caring about their community."
Shame on those who marginalize and claim heroin users don't care about their community. Why, in my community heroin users generously shoot up on the street, leave used syringes in open sight, bring wonderful humanity-enchancing heroin street dealers onto the corners, and conduct the petty rip-offs so necessary to feed a daily habit right out in plain sight. Give me a break--shooting heroin is all about distancing yourself from what you term unacceptable, i.e. straight society. It isn't about including yourself in any community except the one that gets you high. I don't marginalize someone for shooting heroin, but I reserve the right to dismiss anyone who does it and then whines about others not caring. Hello? Get real, citizens.The only justification for clean/safe needle exchange is to serve as a gateway to becoming clean. Stay safe, but start working on the issues that make you an addict; set a schedule, stay with it and sooner rather than later get clean and non-addicted. Once, clean/safe needle exchange starts selling the idea that the user will need to stop using, the program will gain approval. With rare exception, the shooter of street smack is a sorry example of someone on the wrong path.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 26, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

you clearly have zero concept of what drug addiction is... it's too bad, because ignorance, like yours continue to be create a culture that demonizes drugs and drug addicts without any concept of the disease of addiction. Until drug prohibition is overturned and drug addiction is treated as a medical and psychological issue rather than a moral issue, which it is not, then people like you will perpetuate a climate of fear and intolerance to those who suffer from a horrible brain disease that is addiction. If heroin was legal, it would not be sold on the street, it would be pure and affordable therefore reducing overdoses drastically and eliminating the need for criminal activity to feed a habit. Legalize, educate, and treat !

Posted by Guest on Nov. 01, 2012 @ 11:25 am

Junkies can be maintained on heroin pretty easily. But can the same be said for stimulants, meth and cocaine? I don't think so.

Posted by marcos on Nov. 01, 2012 @ 11:37 am

and continue in their normal lives. Rats given the ability to auto-administer Cocaine stop cleaning themselves, stop eating, and die. That said, I'm pretty sure the problem with drug abuse needs to be addressed on a more basic level than prohibition.

Posted by lillipublicans on Dec. 02, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

Look at history- people fought tooth and nail to get an effective system in place to screen drugs before they hit the market- today we have the FDA. It is not without its faults and issues, but the fact is that it prevents Big Pharma from flooding the market with all kinds of drugs that are potentially harmful.

If you legalize heroin- what would be the rational to prevent Big Pharma from putting out vaccines and other drugs without going through testing? Or pain killers that are even more harmful than Heroin? At least when you get a prescription for a drug nowadays, you can be reasonablly confident that the drug went through multiple trials and testing prior to being released. If you essentially toss away the FDA and its regulations, you open the market back up to Big Pharma again and good luck with that.

Posted by D. Native on Nov. 01, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

It *is* still a prescription drug in many countries.

Posted by lillipublicans on Dec. 02, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

Aspirin is a derivative of Salicylic acid, the active ingredient in white willow bark and morphine-based drugs have been around for centuries.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Dec. 02, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

The article has very little actual evidence that there is a rash of OD's going on. The only"proof" is anectodal testimony from drug users- not the most reliable population. Further, as is typical with articles int he SFBG- it tries to slam the City, the cops and hospitals for not caring enough to try and stop all this. If the cops, the hospitals, and the ME are all not seeing this spike- the question should be does it really exist? Not why doesn't the City care more.

Posted by D. Native on Nov. 01, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

The "gun powder" name is a marketing gimmick... Unlike the East Coast "Stamps" (Philly, Detroit, New York, Boston) and the South (St. Louis, Florida, New Orleans, etc)

They all have powder (light brown/tan powder heroin #3 & white heroin #4) with potency ranging in 20-70% purity. Usually street stamps in New York/Philly for $10 you get a "stamp" glassine envelope folded up and taped with an ink stamp/logo. This is mainly so junkie's know the potency. Each stamp usually has a count of (.05 gram) with a potency of 30%.

The West coast is totally different on the other hand... being run by Mexican gangs. They all have black tar heroin #1. The exception is San Francisco.... goto LA, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Salt Lake, etc... Mexican's sell $10 ballons which inside have a wrapped up tiny ball of tar. Usually .1-.2 g for $10 the potency is usually 20-50% (rarely 50).

Like I said though, San Francisco is the exception... The Blacks run the dope game in SF and further cut the mexican tar.... Bringing what would usually be $60-$100 per gram to $20-$50.. While East Coast it costs as much as $75-$200 per gram.

Now the gun powder... That's tar that's hardened with lactose... after that who knows what pharm's they put in it. Garbage

Posted by Guest on Dec. 02, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

Back in the day when I was (ahem) closely aware of the problem of heroin addiction, the Mexican "tar" came in polyethylene bag material, the balloons had the same stuff cut with milk sugar (as you say) and there was also "Persian" which needed to be catalyzed with lemon juice to cook, China White and its imitation, Fentanyl all coming in paper bindles.

And no dealer would knowingly get his customer more high than normal without charging for it.

Not to glorify my drug experience, heroin is a really stupid drug because just like cocaine it takes out more than it gives you in the end.

Posted by This space intentionally left blank on Dec. 02, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

u have no idea what your talking about, nice try buddy. I'm a expert in the sf gp scene and i used to live in nyc

Posted by Guest on Dec. 18, 2012 @ 12:18 am

You bougie yuppies with fake black glasses and iphones dont give a crap about us. all you want is your twitter offices to be free of meth heads and dope heads in the tenderloin. you all think were the problem. the problem is INTOLERANCE and were here to stay. some come on in and make yourselves at home!!!!

Posted by Junkie and proud of it on Mar. 23, 2013 @ 12:45 pm