ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer issued a public warning yesterday about the street drug "China White," a potent synthetic narcotic that has killed at least 23 Marylanders since Jan. 25.
Fentanyl citrate, which is 100 times stronger than heroin, took 17 lives in Baltimore, three in Baltimore County, and one each in Carroll, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, according to the latest report from the state medical examiner, Dr. John Smialek.
"It's a little, little pill that, once injected, can cause instant death," the alarmed governor said at a news conference, where he was flanked by his health secretary and a high-ranking state policeman.
Mr. Schaefer said he could understand people feeling despair and hopelessness. "But I can't understand someone injecting themselves, knowing they are going to kill themselves," he said.
The governor said he plans to focus more on Maryland's drug abuse problem after the General Assembly adjourns in April.
Dealers peddle China White to sometimes unsuspecting heroin users and to people on parole or probation who know that China White may not turn up on conventional drug tests, said Lt. Col. Thomas Carr, drug enforcement bureau chief for the state police.
He held up a plastic bag containing a tiny amount of the coarse-textured, off-white powder, which drug users mix with water and inject. A dose of China White the size of three grains of salt can be instantly fatal, he said.
In recent weeks, Baltimore police have seized 550 glassine bags of China White, Colonel Carr added. Police believe the drug is coming to Maryland from New York.
The drug is manufactured legally for anesthesia and apparently is being stolen by criminals from laboratories or hospitals or during shipment, Colonel Carr said.
Officials have alerted hospital emergency rooms, drug treatment programs and law enforcement agencies about the rare drug, which kills by shutting down the user's respiratory system, state Health Secretary Nelson Sabatini said.
The street form of the drug first appeared in California in 1984. It has been blamed for outbreaks of overdose deaths in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1988, and in the New York area in February 1991.
"The people that are behind illegal drugs have to be the most common, least-caring people that God ever created. They have no feeling at all for life, no feeling at all for human beings. The only thing they're interested in is money and power. And maybe we're handling them the wrong way. Now if you ask me what I mean, I don't know what I mean," Mr. Schaefer said.
He did not offer any specifics, other than to say he expected the state to focus attention on preventing children from taking drugs and on the court system.
People with tips about trafficking in China White may call (800) 492-TIPS. Callers may remain anonymous.