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Crimetracker: Synthetic Heroin

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Drug dealers no longer have to find creative and often very dangerous ways to smuggle drugs into the U.S. Instead, they’re simply doing a Google search on the internet for the latest high.

“Cyber-based crime is really the drug world of the 20th century,” said Assistant Special Agent In-Charge of the DEA Andy Large.

The worldwide web will take you to labs in China and Mexico, where you can place an order to be mailed to your doorstep. The drug, though, isn’t natural. It’s made with chemicals that imitate heroin.

“Let’s face it, these people that are doing this are not scientists. They are not professionals. They are Joe-blow citizens that go out and decide he’s going to increase his profit by increasing the misery of others, basically,” Large said.

What’s being sold is synthetic fentanyl, a Scheduled II narcotic used as an anesthetic and the most potent opioid available in medical treatment. Street dealers use it to cut heroin. In some cases, they sell pure fentanyl as heroin to unsuspecting users, according to the DEA.

“So, your general users who’s used to one drug doesn’t really know what they’re getting, and what he gets out of it is a whole lot worse,” Large said.

Large said often, it’s death. He compares it to playing a game of Russian Roulette, but the odds are much worse.

“If you had an old gun with six cylinders, and you had heroin being a bullet, you put a bullet in the chamber. When you put fentanyl in the mix, you might as well fill up five chambers with bullets and leave one chamber empty and then play Russian Roulette.”

Large said fentanyl coming out of clandestine labs is 100 times more powerful than morphine and up to 50 times more potent than heroin. Powerful enough to be absorbed through the skin, the drug prompted the DEA to warn their agents in the field.

“We recently told our agents we won’t allow them or we encourage them to not field test anything they think is fentanyl or acetyl fentanyl. It’s because it’s that dangerous,” Large said.

“We’ve found victims of this overdose literally with the needle in their arm, so they virtually died during injection,” St. Tammany Coroner Dr. Charles Preston said.

Preston has become extremely worried.

“This year, so far, we’ve had more overdoses on fentanyl than we’ve had on heroin alone,” Preston said.

Since Jan. 1 of this year, five people fatally overdosed on fentanyl in St. Tammany, compared to two heroin deaths.

In Orleans Parish, fentanyl deaths shot up from two in 2014 to 11 last year.

“Death is caused by respiratory arrest, although it can also be caused by swelling of the lungs and a collection of fluid in the lungs. They drown, if you will,” Preston said.

Preston said there’s really no way of knowing how many people overdose everyday on opiate-based drugs.

“The people who survive don’t come here,” Preston said.

Instead, he said they end up in the back of an ambulance. EMTs often use the antidote Narcan to reverse an overdose, but fentanyl cases may be different.

“One of the issues is it’s so very potent it may not even be an effective antidote,” Preston said.

With the rise of heroin use across the country, there’s a rise in demand that dealers are scrambling to meet. According to the DEA, Mexican drug cartels are now purchasing fentanyl directly from China. Fentanyl is also much more profitable than heroin. Large said a kilo of fentanyl that cost about $3,300 generates well over a million dollars in revenue on the street.

“We do our best at enforcement, but another will pop up because it’s a repetitive cycle and money is there,” he said.

It’s the users who are in extreme danger of losing their lives.

“We’ve got to be able to realize that these people need help," Large said. "They need assistance from other people which is outside of our privy. We’re in law enforcement, but we have to bridge the gap with these other help agencies.”

“We’d love to thin of opiate addicts as throw-away people who aren’t important, but that’s not what we find," Preston said. "What we really find is the whole gambit of society, and so it’s the college student, the house wife and the college professor. This disease process really reaches into everyone’s home.”

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