CHICAGO (WLS) -- Music superstar Prince died of a painkiller overdose. But he isn't alone overdosing on fentanyl -the numbers in Cook County are staggering.
For Prince it was a killer high. An accidental overdose of fentanyl, which is a powerful opioid 100 times more potent than morphine. That power is attracting and creating drug abusers in Cook County at record numbers. The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office said that nearly 80 deaths this year are attributed to fentanyl.
Officials at the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office now say that the deaths of 78 people were fentanyl-related so far in 2016.
That is on track for a huge increase compared with last year, and a figure that represents more than 10 percent of the 700 fentanyl deaths in the entire nation during all of 2014.
Making things worse, the ME says those 78 deaths are a low-ball number because there are still cases undergoing toxicology testing.
It isn't clear whether Prince had a prescription for the synthetic drug. Illegally distributing fentanyl to someone who then dies from it is punishable by a mandatory minimum federal sentence of 20 years.
In Cook County, some overdose deaths are from fentanyl-laced heroin, but doctors at Cleveland Clinic say prescription narcotics are really no different from heroin in terms of addiction.
"People need to exercise some caution on their own in that regard because narcotics certainly are addictive, and you know, we're finding out now are really the gateway to heroin. Seventy-five percent of heroin addicts these days started with a prescription narcotic," Dr. Jason Jerry said.
The I-Team reported last October that super-strength heroin laced with fentanyl caused many more overdoses than was being widely reported, with more than 100 users overdosing in Chicago alone during just a few weeks.
Some users collapsed immediately after mainlining the powerful mixture, showing up at hospitals with needles still stuck in their arms.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse put out a fentanyl warning in June 2006, citing the drug's superior potency that makes it a good medication post-surgery and for severe pain. That potency makes it a good target for abuse in Chicago, Detroit and other big cities.
Ten years and thousands of lives later, the abuse of the drug is out of control.
Fentanyl overdoses are on the rise
An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
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