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Fentanyl, date rape drugs delivered to your door

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

It was the return address that tipped off Customs Border Protection officers that the package arriving from China at the FedEx Memphis hub and addressed to an apartment in Artesia, N.M., needed further investigation.

The paperwork sounded innocent enough. It said the package contained cyan (blue-green) computer printer ink.

But it came from the same address in Shanghai as 10 other packages sent to addresses in Arizona, Illinois and New York that customs agents had seized over the past year, according to federal court records.

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Based on that, agents selected the Artesia package for examination and found a bottle containing a blue liquid weighing about 2 pounds. After extensive testing, they determined it was GBL, a controlled drug in both the United States and China, used to make the “date rape” drug GHB.

On its own, GBL causes many of the same effects as GHB.

In low doses, it is considered a “party drug,” like ecstasy. In somewhat larger doses, it can be a date rape drug because it can cause amnesia or even coma and death.

In China, police found GBL mixed with soda pop at underage nightclubs and raided a soft drink manufacturing plant last fall where the drug was being mixed with the non-alcoholic beverages.

No arrests were made in connection with the GBL package headed for Artesia.

Agents attempted a controlled delivery, but the extensive testing required to identify the drug delayed the delivery.

People sending and receiving express packages can track the time of expected arrival. If the packages are delayed too long, the recipient can refuse the package or deny ordering it.

Packages are also sent to vacant addresses, where the person meets the delivery and signs for it using an assumed name.

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If the package gets held up for testing, the person doesn’t show up to take delivery.

The Artesia package was one of millions arriving in the U.S. each day by regular postal service and express air/ground delivery companies like UPS, FedEx and DHL.

In a small percentage of those millions of parcels, smugglers have hidden drugs like Fentanyl, MDMA, GHB and others made in laboratories in China and elsewhere.

Over the past year, Customs Border Protection seized 179 kilograms of GHB coming in through overseas mail or express packages.

Turning to technology

Customs Border Protection has turned to technology to beat the laboratory testing delay problem.

Frank Russo, Port Director for U.S. Customs at JFK Airport

“With the spectrographic laser and chemical equipment, officers don’t have to open the packages and they get results in seconds,” Frank Russo, Port Director at JFK International Airport, said in a telephone interview.

“It is critically important to us,” Russo said.

The JFK mail facility gets about 60 percent of the regular international mail entering the country each day.

Like the 19 express package facilities around the country, CBP officers use X-ray machines and drug-sniffing dogs and point of origin to determine which packages should be searched.

They can also set up watch lists to pre-screen packages and cargo.

Because the packages come from overseas, CBP could legally open them all, but that’s impossible when dealing with millions of packages and pieces of mail. Priorities have to be set.

The hand-held spectrographic laser CBP officers use to identify drugs in suspicious packages also has an internal memory that updates itself.

Russo said that helps catch packages of drugs like Fentanyl that Chinese chemists are continually “tweaking” to make stronger.

It can sometimes take a laboratory several days to identify the drug as an offshoot of traditional Fentanyl, but the spectrographic lasers can make that determination in several seconds.

That reduces the delay in making a “controlled delivery” in which agents would try to arrest the person receiving the drugs.

Each unit costs $75,000, and 60 are now in use around the country with more in the pipeline.

In Russo’s estimation, the cost is worth it.

“The CDC just reported that the average life expectancy in the United States went down because of opioid overdose deaths,” Russo said.

Increase in seizures

Last January, CBP officers inspected a parcel shipped from China to an address in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights.

The paperwork described the contents as a some sort of coloring agent or pigment.

The actual contents: a little over two ounces of an opioid called U-47700 – a little-known analgesic developed in the 1970s that was never tested on humans, but is estimated to be about seven times stronger than morphine.

While not as powerful as Fentanyl, it is used in much the same way. The powder form of U-47700 is used in illegal pill pressing operations and has been linked to fatal overdoses around the country.

A small amount of the drug is diluted, then pressed into a pill or capsule form for distribution, usually as counterfeit 30 milligram oxycodone tablets.

It is also used to increase the strength of heroin that has been cut too much.

Two ounces might not sound like much, but typically the drugs coming through international mail are “very high” purity and this batch was no exception. Testing showed that it was basically 100 percent pure and that $500 worth of U-47700 could be used to churn out $25,000 in “product.”

While seizures of U-47700 are not unusual, Port Director Russo said seizures of shipments of the much more powerful opioid, Fentanyl, from China and Hong Kong have increased significantly.

Five years ago, CBP seized one kilogram of Fentanyl. That increased to 550 kilos in the most recent fiscal year.

“Once we began to focus on Fentanyl, our seizures went up significantly,” Russo said.

Drug trafficking organizations and individuals purchase powdered Fentanyl online.

They can also buy pill presses and binding agents online that are then shipped into the U.S. primarily using the U.S. Mail or express consignment couriers.

CBP does not expect the flow of Fentanyl and other drugs through the mail and express packaging to decrease any time soon because the potential profit is enormous.

“Six thousand dollars worth of Fentanyl,” he said, “can be turned into millions of dollars worth of drugs.”

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