Cortland marks 200% increase in drug deaths

(Photos provided by the Cortland City Police Department).

With tainted opioids flooding the local drug market, city police are reporting a 200% increase in overdose deaths in less than two years: Officers logged seven fatalities in 2018, but 2020 has marked 21 deaths so far.

Over the last 11 days, Cortland Police Department officers have responded to two overdose deaths and five total overdoses, said Lt. Michael Strangeway. The fifth overdose occurred at 1:25 this afternoon, Strangeway said. That person was revived using naloxone, a drug used to reverse the effects of an opiate overdose that is better known by its brand name Narcan, according to the department.

The official tally of total overdoses may represent just a fraction of the actual instances, Strangeway noted. In many cases, an overdosing drug user may be saved by a bystander with naloxone and officials will not be notified, he said.

City police interviewed a local man who told police his heroin-addicted girlfriend had overdosed five separate times and was saved with naloxone in each instance, according to the department.

The man told a City Police Investigator that only one of those five, potentially fatal, overdoses was reported to police or medical personnel,” Strangeway said. “The man explained that this is typical of what he is seeing and hearing among local users.”


As police continue to investigate the source of the tainted drugs, officers have uncovered a total of five illicit drug “brands”, identifiable by distinctive stamps on the wax bags they are distributed in, according to the department.

Three of the “brands” — called “Smile,” “Banger” and “Krave” — were discovered within the last 11 days, Strangeway noted. Two earlier types — labeled “Spiderman” and “Monster High” — were discovered on Sept. 17 during a raid at 237 Port Watson St., he said. That residence was being used as a drug den where users can purchase their drugs, as well as needles and other supplies, and partake of the illicit substances on the spot, Strangeway said.

The stamped, wax bags usually contain heroin and are often laced with cheaper, synthetic opioids that raise the profit margin for the seller and the risk of an overdose for the buyer, he said.

“To increase profit margins, the large Drug Trafficking Organizations that market these ‘brands’ generally cut the expensive heroin with a cheaper synthetic substance like fentanyl or brorphine,” Strangeway said. These large organizations are usually based in large, metropolitan areas far out of the city police department’s jurisdiction, such as New York City and Chicago. “The presence of stamped bags in this community is a disturbing sign,” Strangeway said.

These synthetic opioids raise the risk of overdose death in two ways: the opioids make the drugs far stronger and they are poorly mixed-in, making the ratio of synthetic opioid to heroin vary greatly from dose to dose.

Heroin, without adding fentanyl or brorphine, is already a deadly drug, Strangeway said. “You start adding powerful opiates on top of powerful opiates — it’s a bad situation,” he said.

Variation of each dose’s composition of heroin and synthetic opioids makes a bad situation worse, Strangeway noted in a Sept. 17 interview.

“There’s no pharmaceutical grade equipment in use when it comes to mixing these substances,” Strangeway said in the previous interview, noting Brorphine and Fentanyl are sometimes mixed into heroin or cocaine with a kitchen whisk.

Record deaths

City police are still waiting to receive post-mortem toxicology tests in some deaths that could raise the record-breaking overdose fatality count still further, according to the department.

“We’re waiting on toxicology for a number of victims,” Strangeway said.

According to Cortland County Coroner’s Office statistics shared with the Cortland Police Department, there were 21 overdose deaths so far in 2020. For all of 2019, there were only 10 deaths, while there were 7 in 2018. Going back further, there were: 15 deaths in 2017, 10 deaths in 2016, 9 deaths in 2015 and 3 deaths in 2014.

The Cortland County Sheriff’s Office has also seen an increase in overdose deaths, although the number has not risen as sharply or quickly outside of the city, said Capt. Rob Derksen.

“Obviously, we’ve had some, but we haven’t seen the dramatic increase that I think the city has,” Derksen said. “Overall, I know the County is way up.”

Specific numbers of overdoses outside the city were unavailable this afternoon.

Those struggling with addiction can seek help from the Cortland Police Department without facing prosecution through its Angel Program if they freely turn themselves and their drugs into the station at 25 Court St.

“This is a particularly dangerous time for those suffering with addiction,” Strangeway said. “Help is available for those who ask for it.”