A rash of overdose deaths from heroin laced with a powerful synthetic opiate has drawn a high-profile reaction from law enforcement and public-health officials, who are scrambling to find the source of the drugs and warn addicts of the danger.

Thirty-seven people in Maryland have died after using the fentanyl-laced heroin since September. The cases represented one-tenth of more than 300 reported drug overdoses in that time, according to state health officials.

But a rising trend of heroin-linked fatalities has been on the radar for years.

In Anne Arundel County, for instance, Chief Kevin Davis put together a task force last year named Operation H.O.P.E., which stands for Heroin Overdose Prevention and Eradication, with officers from Annapolis police, state police and authorities in Calvert County.

Police spokesman Lt. T.J. Smith said county officials had noticed an upswing in heroin overdoses — and were seizing stronger versions of the drug.

"Through intelligence, we were able to find out that the purity is more potent than it used to be," he said. "We're trying to tell people, 'The heroin you're using right now is not the same kind you were using two years ago.'"

Smith also noted a correlation between heroin and crime. To illustrate, he said the number of cases in which heroin was submitted to the county lab from crime scenes increased from 173 in 2010 to 384 through Dec. 2 in 2013.

Smith tied the drug to crime including theft from autos, precious metal theft, and robberies.

Four of the fentanyl overdoses occurred in Anne Arundel County. The most — 10 — occurred in Baltimore. The fentanyl prompted an urgent response, due to its high potency — it is 80 to 100 times stronger than heroin, officials said.

State police say fentanyl was first detected in lab analysis in June, and found in drug seizures submitted from Hagerstown, Frederick and Wicomico County. Baltimore police say their lab has detected fentanyl in 12 drug submissions since July 1.

So far in 2014, Anne Arundel County said its crime lab has detected fentanyl four times.

"This is not a usual submission observed here in the lab," Smith said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com