State crime labs seek overdose answers

Fentanyl produced in illicit labs in China is easier and cheaper to make than traditional heroin, and poorly mixed batches are primarily responsible for the increased amount of fatal and non-fatal drug overdoses, according to trends spotted in labs at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“It is not that complicated to make fentanyl, and that is the reason we are seeing so much of it. It’s not that hard to make and it is cheaper than producing heroin. You don’t need a huge poppy field. The majority of it is manufactured overseas, mostly in Asia, but it comes into the country through Mexico and in shipments from China,” said Tom Stickrath, superintendent of BCI.

When fentanyl and other synthetic opioids like the powerful drug carfentanil are mixed into a batch of heroin, it makes the mixture 50 to 100 times more strong, which means users are more likely to experience depressed respiratory symptoms, which can lead to death if not treated.

CLICK HERE to read report on deadly Fentanyl exports from China to U.S.

“There is a reason they are cutting heroin with fentanyl, it is more potent and cheaper, so they can mix it with a lower grade of heroin and still get the same high. The cost is down, but they still get the same high,” said Keith Martin, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Northern District of Ohio.

In Trumbull County, more have died from accidental drug overdoses every year since 2013, and the numbers keep rising.

Each year the number of fatal overdoses has increased, the frequency of fentanyl and carfentanil has increased too, according to statistics from the Trumbull County Coroner’s Office.

Between 2006 and 2014, there were eight people who died from accidental overdose deaths with fentanyl in their system. In 2015, the number shot up to 9, and up to 36 in 2016.

Numbers for 2017 are incomplete, but of the 60 who died in the county with conclusive toxicology results, coroner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk ruled 17 died from acute fentanyl intoxication and 20 of a deadly mix that included fentanyl.

“The more fentanyl in there, the more dangerous it is, and sometimes it also depends, too, on how pure the fentanyl is, if it was cut with a cutting agent. A lot of times it is cut with inert substances like sugar or caffeine, so depending on how much of that is used, it might not be as dangerous as it would if pure heroin or pure fentanyl is mixed together. And there are other drugs it can be mixed with, which can make it more fatal,” Stickrath said.

Users don’t know what they are getting and use an amount that has worked for them in the past, Stickrath said.

“Users are used to a certain way of using and then a batch comes through that is more pure, or with more fentanyl, and the body isn’t used to it, especially if they are just coming out of jail or detox. They use what they think is the same substance, but their body isn’t used to it. So a number of things contribute to a more fatal or dangerous batch of drugs,” Stickrath said.

A lot of the synthetic opioids coming into the country and making their way into Trumbull County is ordered over the internet or is funneled from China to cartels in Mexico, Martin said.

“We are targeting the cartels using the same routes of the last 100 years. They have different methods of concealment, and we are able to target them, but the internet creates a harder target. It’s like ordering on Amazon, and it comes right to your house. It is difficult to track internet purchases,” Martin said. “But we do work well with our Chinese counterparts and have intercepted packages of large and small quantities.”

A bill that would authorize $9 million to be spent by the Customs and Border Patrol to help detect fentanyl at border crossings passed last week 412-3 in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill is still making its way through the senate, but the money would be spent on new screening devices, laboratory equipment, facilities and personnel that can detect fentanyl.

The DEA works closely with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, police departments, the FBI and sheriff’s offices to help track and remove the drugs from the streets, Martin said. The efforts have led to record seizures of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines, Martin said.

The partnerships help to track the fatal batches and go after the organizations and people responsible for spreading it, Martin said.

There has been an “amazing” increase of samples of the lethal drugs sent into BCI’s crime labs, Stickrath said.

Not only are there more samples to process, but they are increasingly more complex to identify.

“The new synthetics and mixtures are way more complicated than what we were testing five years ago. It’s changed the way we do business, the method involves more instrumentation, where we used to use a simple color test,” Stickrath said.

There isn’t only more work, but it is more dangerous, Stickrath said, so added safety precautions draw out the time it takes to test.

The labs are hiring and training more chemists, adding more equipment, Stickrath said.

The labs share the results with the requesting agency, drug task forces throughout the state and BCI’s intelligence division to spread the word about trends and aid investigations.

Ending the epidemic will take more than quelling the flow of drugs and convicting drug dealers, Martin said.

“The DEA is known as more of a cloak and dagger operation, but we are getting out into the community and schools more, talking to community members and educating students. It is important for kids to be educated properly in order to prevent drug use trends from continuing,” Martin said.

Martin said there also needs to be a new approach to handle drug users.

“When it comes to arresting our way out of the problem, the only way to do it is to put dealers in jail. But the people who are using, I don’t look at them as criminals. Say you went to the dentist and got your wisdom teeth removed. They give you 18, 20 Vicodin and you become hooked. Many addicts are created this way, at some point they run out of doctors visits and pills. The next progression is the needle,” Martin said.

Resources for treatment of existing addicts is important, but more focus is needed on prevention education for the next generation, Martin said.