Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Officials say wave of fentanyl overdoses being fueled by Chinese Labs


Officials say wave of fentanyl overdoses being fueled by Chinese Labs





Federal law enforcement officials say variants of fentanyl — shown here in its brick powder form — have become increasingly prolific in the United States.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration photo

FOR WEB

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration photo

WILKES-BARRE — A highly publicized local surge of overdoses involving synthetic opiates, often mixed with heroin, is part of a nationwide trend that federal law enforcement officials say is being fueled by a steady supply of the drugs from China, a scenario law enforcement and health officials have described to the Times Leader as a “perfect storm.”
Most of the drugs are variants of fentanyl, a Schedule II pharmaceutical similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse.
In Luzerne County alone, coroner’s officials say fentanyl or its variants were present in 32 of the 89 fatal opioid overdoses recorded so far this year, according to the county coroner’s office.
With eight suspected overdoses still awaiting a determination of cause of death, it is more than likely overdose deaths in 2016 will far exceed 2015’s total of 95 deaths, officials told the Times Leader.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, most of the drugs are being manufactured in laboratories in China before being smuggled into the United States. According to law enforcement reports, many of the labs are marketing the drugs directly to drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, Canada and the United States.
Jeremiah Daley, who heads the federally funded High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program in Philadelphia, says the drugs, which are typically used to “cut” heroin or are pressed into pill form, have become increasingly common in the Northeast since about 2013 despite the best efforts of both the U.S. and Chinese governments.
According to recent DEA reports, law enforcement seizures of fentanyl increased 400 percent from 2013 to 2014, and more than 80 percent of fentanyl seizures in the country in 2014 were reported in 10 states predominantly in the eastern U.S., including Pennsylvania.
An endless supply
Daley, the HIDTA director, says many of the drugs and their chemical precursors are often purchased online via the so-called “Dark Web” — websites and networks not accessible through normal web browsers — and shipped through the postal system. Daley says a lack of manpower in the postal system makes it difficult for the drugs to be intercepted in transit.
“The mail is a huge thing,” says Hazleton Police Chief Jerry Speziale. “And it’s difficult to monitor. It’s coming to New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and postal authorities don’t know that it’s coming through.”
According to DEA reports, the drugs are often shipped either directly to the United States or first to Mexico, although some make their way to Canada and are then smuggled into the Northeast.
Daley says precursors of the drug also are often shipped by mail in powdered form and processed later.
In one recent case, West Wyoming police discovered an apparent fentanyl lab on Aug. 17 when they served a search warrant on an Eighth Street residence they’d had under surveillance for months.
Officer-in-charge Jason Slatcoff says departments in smaller communities are finding they have to reach out for outside funding and investigative resources to deal with the trend.
“In our case, we couldn’t have completed the shutdown of this operation if it wasn’t for the (Office of Attorney General) and the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office,” Slatcoff says.
Vito Guarino, a former DEA special agent who once served as a liaison to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says that in general, heroin dealers are lacing their product with fentanyl to make it more potent.
The resulting mix, he says, varies in potency from batch to batch and bag to bag, with one bag tolerable and the next potentially deadly.
“Drug dealers aren’t pharmacists,” Guarino says. “They have no way to determine exact potency.”
Daley says law enforcement agencies are particularly concerned about chemical analogs of fentanyl, which include furanyl fentanyl and carfentanil, that he says are often difficult for law enforcement to identify when first introduced into the market.
Difficult to treat
In a region already in the grips of a nationwide heroin crisis, the increasing presence of fentanyl and its analogs in the local drug supply is only making matters worse for first responders.
Looking at a map of the U.S. titled “Increase in fentanyl incidents,” Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney points to a green dot in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania. While eastern Pennsylvania is covered with the green dots, which represent spikes in fentanyl-related emergencies, this particular dot stands alone.
“That’s us, that’s this city and surrounding areas,” he says.
Delaney said the increase in the use of fentanyl and other opioids has stressed the resources of the department.
Since last January, he says, the department has used about 260 doses of naloxone, a drug administered to reverse opioid overdoses.
But Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s physician general, says that because fentanyl is so much more potent than heroin, overdose victims often requires several doses of naloxone over a period of time because the drug reasserts itself in their system.
A public health matter
Both law enforcement and health officials say they view the problems posed by fentanyls in the context of the nationwide opioid crisis.
Levine, the physician general, says her department is addressing the issue from a public safety and health standpoint.
Although she applauds law enforcement agencies for their efforts to reduce trafficking and to identify offenders, Levine says the long-term goal of her office is addressing opioid addiction as a disease.
Interactions with law enforcement, she says, are a chance for opioid addicts to be detoxed and get treatment.
“Police can’t arrest their way out of this problem,” she says. “But it can be an opportunity for identification and rehabilitation.”
While the Philadelphia HIDTA director stresses that law enforcement agencies are busy targeting high and mid-level drug distributors, Daley says his organization — which facilitates cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in regional drug cases — is also partnering with public health agencies to address the demand.
“There’s no silver bullet,” he says.