RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Fentanyl is a powerful and popular drug, especially for users looking to get high when heroin is no longer enough. The Department of Forensic Science says they are seeing fentanyl show up more and more in their opioid overdose testing.
Chasing a high he could no longer get from snorting heroin, 34-year-old Ryan Nichols turned to fentanyl.
"I knew that it was dangerous, it was more potent," said Nichols. "I knew that it took less to get the desired effect. At the time, I really didn't care about the dangerous part of it. I just wanted something that was stronger."
Fentanyl is same the prescription opioid that killed Prince.
The Governor's Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse says illicitly-produced fentanyl is what's contributing to a surge in overdose deaths in Virginia.
"Death is not a concern," said Nichols. "The fact that someone died from a product is almost appealing."
The surge in fentanyl and heroin overdose deaths puts a growing burden on state toxicology labs.
James Hutchings is the toxicology program manager at the Department of Forensic Science. He says the department handles testing for homicides, suicides, DUIs and overdoses from across the Commonwealth.
Hutchings says because of the large case load, there's usually a backlog of 400 cases per lab, with an average turnaround time of 60 days. All the requests for fentanyl and heroin overdose testing is adding to the strain.
Numbers from the Virginia Department of Health indicate fentanyl and heroin overdose deaths started to rise sharply in 2012. Preliminary numbers show 468 Virginians died from fentanyl, heroin, or a combination of both last year. 351 deaths were reported in 2014.
"It's definitely added to the burden, because of the nature of the extensive testing," said Hutchings. "It's a much more laborious process to do the opiate testing, that it adds on time to our backlog."
Hutchings says the demand for fentanyl is high because a small amount of the drug has a powerful effect, and many like Nichols substitute it for heroin.
"You need even less of it to be a lethal dose," said Hutchings.
Pure fentanyl is hard to come by, according to Nichols. When he couldn't find the drug of the street, he turned to the black market online. He bought one gram of fentanyl for about $1,000. By comparison, he says a gram on heroin runs for about $100.
"Heroin that has been touched several, several times after it enters the country, then someone sprinkles a very small amount of fentanyl it in which makes it deadly. That's all it takes," he said.
Nichols is currently in recovery at the McShin foundation. He credits the non-profit for helping him stay clean for 60 days straight for the first time in 20 years.
"I've never really felt better about myself than I do now," he said.
Copyright 2016 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved