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Fentanyl: A new player in deadly drug epidemic

cartel_day5_fentnyl_mapALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was like waiting for New Mexico’s summer monsoon rain.

Law enforcement here knew it was coming but didn’t know when.

We are talking about fentanyl.

People were dying of fentanyl overdoses in New England, the Midwest, New York and California.

In March 2015, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Albuquerque seized 3 kilograms of fentanyl concealed in a false bottom compartment of a suitcase at a commercial bus transportation center. The trafficker was a Mexican national traveling from San Diego to New York City.

The question again: When would it hit New Mexico?

And then it did.

Last summer, there were at least 22 fentanyl overdoses in the state, and the DEA is still trying to find out who sold it and where.

Two milligrams of fentanyl, a potential lethal dose, next to a penny. (Source: Drug Enforcement Administration)

Two milligrams of fentanyl, a potential lethal dose, next to a penny. (Source: Drug Enforcement Administration)

Part of the problem is that the deaths occurred early in the summer, but it took the Office of the Medical Investigator months to determine the drug was the cause of death.

Fentanyl is a powerful painkiller for cancer patients and some people with chronic pain due to degenerative bone diseases.

On the legal market, it comes in time-release patches.

But it is deadly stuff, and 2 milligrams can lead to a fatal overdose.

The fentanyl on the illegal market is made in China, where manufacturers make variations of the drug called analogs. It is shipped directly to the United States, usually in a liquid form, when purchased on the dark internet.

But over the past few years, more of it is being shipped to Mexico in blocks of powder that are mixed with poor-quality heroin or heroin that has been cut with too much quinine.

Online recipes suggest mixing a teaspoon of fentanyl with 4 kilograms of quinine and 1 kilogram of heroin that will lead to a street-quality heroin that still has a “kick.”

Or it is made into pills that look like prescription painkillers in “pill mills” located in ports on Mexico’s west coast and the Gulf of California. The powder fentanyl is mixed with inert substances, blue or tan dyes are added with some water, and then the mixture is pressed into pills with a pill press.

Some of the operations are quite primitive, and workers have died from inhaling the fentanyl powder.

DEA agents believe that the look-alike painkiller pills are what led to the deaths in New Mexico last summer. In many cases, the drug users don’t realize they are getting a much more potent drug that can lead to their deaths.

The DEA has started training classes for law enforcement and Postal Service employees so they do not suffer an accidental overdose, because minute amounts of the drug are lethal and can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled.

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