The Deadly Cost of Fentanyl: Federal agents facing global challenges

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The Fentanyl problem confronting North Alabama and the rest of the United States has roots thousands of miles away, according to federal law enforcement officials.

Fentanyl is an American-made drug, used to treat severe pain, often with cancer patients. Authorities say knockoffs of Fentanyl - now, the deadliest drug in the United States - are being produced in China with few controls.

“What we’re learning is how feckless the Chinese laws are, and we’re trying to get China to react to that in a positive way that would protect our intellectual property here in the United States as it relates to pharmaceuticals,” says Jay Town, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.

The drug is making its way into the U.S., Town says that poses a major challenge.

“To get China to recognize that the precursors for Fentanyl, which are being manufactured, being made in China,” Town said. “Then they are being sold to people in Mexico, who are then mixing it up, stamping out pills, or mixing it with another drug and bringing it into the United States where it is killing thousands and thousands of Americans."

It turns out, if you have a computer, you can find a version of Fentanyl and get it in the mail.

Andy Langan, acting assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Birmingham, Fentanyl is being bought and sold on the so-called dark web of the Internet, often using cryptocurrency.

“A lot of what we're seeing, some of the dark web and the use of bitcoin, a lot of individuals ordering Fentanyl and products that contain Fentanyl, from overseas, such as China,” Langan said.

A Madison man Joseph William Davis received a 10-year sentence in December on drug trafficking charges, using the dark web. Court records said he had 40 grams of fentanyl-laced products.

Experts say about 2 milligrams of Fentanyl is a lethal dose -- 2/1000ths of one gram.

“You can imagine the lack of controls in an illicit drug market,” Town says.

Langan said Fentanyl can be found in any number of drugs, without warning.

“I think the fact that right now, one of the biggest worries, is that Fentanyl can be in any of these controlled substances, any of these illicit drugs that are out on the street today,” he said. “So even if you just want to experiment with a drug, you don't know what you're getting, anything could be laced with that stuff.”

And it's killing more and more people every year. 

The Centers for Disease Control reports Fentanyl was the 10th leading cause of U.S. overdose deaths in 2011, claiming about 1,600 lives. By 2014 it was the fifth most lethal drug, killing more than 4,000 people.

The Fentanyl overdose death toll near doubled in 2015 to more than 8,000 lives, and the toll more than doubled in 2016, claiming 18,335 people - in a year.

Fentanyl is considered 50 times more potent than heroin, nearly 100 times more potent than morphine.

“You could use Fentanyl one time and be so addicted to it, you could overdose the next day,” U.S. Attorney Town says. “Because you can't take enough of it. Your mind, your brain won't let you take a break from it.”

It’s like something out of science fiction, but it's here. The largest-ever Fentanyl seizure in U.S. history took place in Arizona just two weeks ago.

“Fentanyl, in my judgment, is something I wish we could disinvent,” Town says.

The DEA’s Langan says users who've overdosed on Fentanyl, or Fentanyl-laced heroin, and survived, say it's unique. And they want it again.

“They describe it as fire,” he says. “It's a different kind of sensation, it adds to a different kind of high for that individual."

Town says the policy of the Department of Justice and his Northern District office is to prosecute anyone who is found to have sold a drug that led to an overdose injury or death.

Ashley Smith of Huntsville is set to go on trial in March, charged with selling a fatal dose of Fentanyl.

Michael Sain of Hartselle has pleaded guilty to selling Fentanyl that led to an overdose injury.

Bob Becher, an assistant U.S. Attorney, says they are tracking potential overdose calls in Madison County. Becher reports getting three or four calls a day,

Town says they are still dealing with the sheer size of the problem.

“There's not a one-off solution, there's not one area of the law, get more drug dealers off the streets, that's not going to impact it,” Town says. “We have to go to China, we have to use State Department resources, Treasury Department resources, the full weight of the White House and anything the Department of Justice can do.”

Town says there's no way to overstate the problem.

“More Americans died last year, almost twice as many died last year of an overdose than died in a car accident.”

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