Let’s make this perfectly clear, the recent opiate crisis grappling Americans of all demographic backgrounds is not coming from CVS, Walgreens or Wal-Mart. US doctors are not prescribing massive doses of hydrocodone or oxytocin, nope, the real perpetrator of the opiate crisis is delivered to your mailbox from China in the form of synthetic opiate drugs, like fentanyl as well as a tide of mystery chemicals, concocted to enhance illegal drugs like heroin or meth.
Law enforcement agents across the country are stunned by the wave of chemically engineered opiates purchased via the Internet and mailed through the US mail or other international shippers.
Some of those officers work at JFK airport in New York who processes more than 60 percent of all US-bound international mail. They say the increase in fentanyl busts can be tied to a dramatic increase in funds earmarked to screen suspicious packages.
“We’ve gotten a lot better at figuring out the threat, figuring out where it’s coming from, and identifying those packages that we need to treat as high risk,” Frank Russo, the US Customs and Border Protection port director at JFK Airport told USA Today. “It’s mainly coming from China and Hong Kong, destined for every part of the United States.”
Some of the tools the DEA uses are X-ray machines, handheld lasers as well as K-9 dogs trained to detect fentanyl and other synthetic opiates. Officials say they seized more than 60 shipments of fentanyl this calendar year.
While the number of synthetic opiate seizures is encouraging, agents estimate that more than one million packages slip by law enforcement at JFK every day.
Federal law enforcement in Queens recorded its largest bust of street fentanyl last month.
Jointly, the NYPD and DEA retrieved 64 kilograms of fentanyl from a residential neighborhood that netted $30 million worth of narcotics, according to the city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor.
“The sheer volume of fentanyl pouring into the city is shocking,” said Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan in a statement. “The city is used as a hub of regional distribution for a lethal substance that is taking thousands of lives throughout the Northeast,” she added.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC), first preliminary 2016 overdose report; there has been a 22-percent increase in drug-related deaths. Specifically, opioid deaths have nearly doubled, from 33,000 in 2015 to about 50,000 last year. The agency attributes the majority of the increase to illegal fentanyl use.
For those who think they’ve heard of the drug Fentanyl, the musician formerly known as Prince overdosed on the drug last year. The DEA describes the dangers of fentanyl as a crisis because it only takes a few granules (think salt or sand) to enhance the high or cause an overdose. Also, the drug’s inexpensive cost, make it a no-brainer for competing gangs and cartels to enhance other illicit drugs.
In the US, lawful fentanyl is a painkiller usually given through an IV or patch and is used for surgeries or pain treatment for those in the late stages of cancer, but the illegal version is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, cocaine or meth. However, it’s the synthetic version that is pouring into America and responsible for the increased overdoses making headlines across Middle America.
The problem with the epidemic is most “customers” do not know what they are getting. A few months ago a pair of 13-year-olds from Park City, Utah ordered “pinky” online, paid for it with Bitcoin and died before their parents could get them to the hospital, according to local police. Unfortunately, this is a common tale playing out across the US.
The deadly flakes are perfect for online purchases. Unlike other drugs like heroin, meth or even prescription painkillers, that are easily detectable due to their size, fentanyl can get nearly 50,000 people high from one standard first-class envelope.
“The leading dark net market, AlphaBay, had more than 21,000 listings for opioids and more than 4,100 for fentanyl and similar drugs, from dozens of dealers large and small. Many of those individual listings are like items in a catalog, representing an endless back-room supply of pills, powders, and nasal sprays,” the Department of Justice said. “Just last month, the federal authorities announced charges against a six-person operation in Utah that was purchasing fentanyl in bulk from China on the dark web and then pressing the powder into pills and selling the pills on the dark web to users in the United States.”
The DOJ claims said the criminal organization has sold hundreds of thousands of fake pills, often advertised as Oxycodone or Xanax.
Tim Plancon, who oversees the Drug Enforcement Administration in the epicenter of the crisis says, “It [fentanyl] has come to play a key role in the overdose crisis. It’s expanded beyond just your traditional drug smuggling and trafficking. There is just a lot more involved with it when you are dealing with folks on the dark web with virtual currencies.”
He contends, “Most of the illicit supply of synthetic opioids are produced in labs in Asia and especially China, where many of the precursor chemicals are either legal or easier to procure.”
Jumping into the fray are the drug cartels and gang members. The fact the drug can be easily transferred via the mail is appealing for the Chinese producers.
“For the cartels, why wait for a field of poppies to grow and harvest if you can get your hands on the precursor chemicals and cook a batch of fentanyl in a lab?” says Tim Reagan, a DEA agent from Cincinnati.
Agents explain that enforcement is tough. Because the Chinese labs are able to play hide-and-seek with authorities across the globe that makes it especially tough to track down moving targets. By using websites, sellers can post fake physical addresses at shuttered factories, then they use third parties as traffickers, and finally, gang members represent themselves as sales agents.
According to Science Magazine, the highly technical millennial’s know how to search Google for “research chemicals advertising fentanyl, carfentanil, and other derivatives, for sale through direct mail shipments to the United States. On one website, carfentanil goes for $361 for 50 grams, the equivalent of tens of thousands of lethal doses.”
While China has moved to end cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, according to Bloomberg Markets, “The cryptocurrency ban will only apply to trading on exchanges, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg on Monday. Authorities don’t have plans to stop over-the-counter transactions.”
With record busts and overdoses of fentanyl in the US, law enforcement suggests that cutting off the means of payments will curtail the growing epidemic. But with the reemergence of “Silk Road” wannabes and wanton young people, officials say the tide will only increase.