The rapidly evolving market of synthetic opioids has become a constant struggle to identify new drugs trafficked in the United States. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers synthetic opiates as an entirely new class of drugs responsible for creating the deadliest addiction crisis in the country, killing thousands in the last years.

The Special Testing Laboratory is one of eight forensic chemistry labs the DEA runs to investigate drugs and new compounds trafficked and used in America. New drugs are appearing every week, an increased rate never seen before.

Image credit: Christina Ryan/ Calgary Herald.

Most new compounds that come into the lab to for investigation contain synthetic opioids designed to mimic fentanyl, a prescription painkiller 50 times stronger than heroin. Nowadays, different drugs are combined with synthetic fentanyl without users knowing it, leading them to overdose deaths.

A vast majority of synthetic opioids used in the country come from China, where producers are winning the race against laws that ban certain substances. Scientific innovation helps synthetic drug factories to adapt to regulations, making small changes in the compounds to sell their drugs legally on the internet. Laws prohibit a drug and its formula, giving drug makers the chance to create a slightly different product that is technically legal.

Opioids killed more than 33 thousand people in 2015 in the United States. These drugs depress the body and often leads to respiratory arrest.

Drug makers from foreign countries introduced many opioids variations legally in the U.S. through the internet and known delivery companies, including DHL and UPS.

Several China-based laboratories produced the majority of synthetic opioids that enter the U.S. illegal drug market. Chinese laws also ban synthetic drugs, but their pace is slower than U.S. regulations, which make drug makers establish their factories in the Asian country.

Shanghai Xianchong Chemical Co., for example, produced 4FIBF, a synthetic opioid that got banned in China in October 2015. The DEA Special Testing Laboratory recently analyzed a similar opioid found off the field, but it had a different arrangement of three carbon atoms, which makes it technically legal in China and the U.S, exposing a broad drug market that operates on the internet.

Synthetic drugs can be bought using the Western Union, Bitcoin or MoneyGram and DHL, UPS or EMS ship the Chinese products to users in the U.S.

As long as regulations do not ban all possible compound combination to deathly synthetic drugs, overdose-related deaths will continue to increase, and the drug market will only become more lethal and accessible.

The National Drug Threat Assessment: Fentanyl synthetic variations have increased overdose-related deaths in the U.S.

DEA Special Testing Laboratory goal is to identify drugs found in the field. Chemists have found that more and more samples contain carfentanil, a fentanyl-type opioid that was used as a chemical weapon due to its potential.

Carfentanil is approximately 10 thousand times more potent than morphine, meaning it is more addictive and more dangerous than it. Carfentanil presence in the U.S. drug market could increase overdose related deaths, even among opioid-tolerant users.

Chuck Rosenberg, DEA Acting Administrator, announced early December the results from the National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA). The report details how illicit drugs are affecting Americans. The NDTA sheds light on the continued opioid epidemic and how different kinds of synthetic fentanyl are making their way into other popular drugs.

The opioid epidemic has worsened due to fentanyl, and its stronger effects often lead to overdose. Fentanyl has strong opioids properties that have made it attractive for drug users, increasing the demand on the opioid market but also the risk of respiratory arrest.

Heroin caused deaths surpassed deaths caused by guns. Image Credit: Life Site News

Drug dealers learned they could make more money when mixing fentanyl to other popular drugs, even when the product it is likely to kill the consumer.

Fentanyl is currently incorporated into heroin products and illegal prescription pills, often without the users’ awareness, which explains the increased number of overdose-related deaths in the country. The heroin user population is growing due to fentanyl as well since it makes the drug even more addictive. Between 2010 and 2014 heroin overdoses in America tripled according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deaths in the “synthetic opioids” category rose 79 percent from 3,097 to 5,544 in 2014. Health officials said Fentanyl is contributing the most to the recent increase the report explains.

Apart from opiates, methamphetamine continues to be available throughout the country, according to the NDTA. It also continues to contribute to violent and property crime in the country.

The report also explains that cocaine availability and use in the United States increased between 2014 and 2015 and will continue to grow in the near future. 

There are elevated levels of coca cultivation and potential pure cocaine production that indicates more cocaine will be available, meaning traffickers have the chance to reinvigorate America’s cocaine market. Colombia remains the primary source of supply the U.S according to the DEA.  

Source: DEA