Tracking the Opioid Crisis: Inside the DEA’s Secret Lab
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Sitting among the warehouses of Dulles, Virginia is one of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration’s forensic labs. It is one of eight countries where scientists analyze illegal drugs and try to stay ahead of what leads to fatal overdoses.
Since the late 1990s with the over-prescription of prescription narcotics, the opioid epidemic has continued to plague the United States for decades. What has changed is the type of drugs that have killed more than half a million people over the past 20 years.
CNN has gained rare access to the secret lab where DEA tests seized illicit drugs to figure out what’s next.
“The market is constantly changing, so we’re trying to do everything we can from a scientific basis to keep up with that,” Scott Oulton, deputy assistant administrator for the DEA’s Office of Forensic Science, told the CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. .
Holding a white bag of fentanyl precursor powder – one of the chemicals used to make the opioid – Oulton explained that the illegally manufactured painkiller continues to be a dominant presence in the drugs authorities find.
“That kilogram can be converted into fentanyl to make about 800 grams,” he said. “So it doesn’t take a lot of material, it’s pretty cheap, it’s inexpensive to get.”
Fentanyl is the deadliest drug in the United States, and it is often found in combination with other illicit drugs, including cocaine and heroin. But increasingly, fentanyl is appearing in illicit pills disguised as common prescription drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone and even Adderall.
Users who buy drugs on the street that look like prescription pills may end up with a very potent and potentially deadly drug they never intended to take.
“Over 99% of what we see is fake. They contain fentanyl,” Oulton said of the pills the agency is seizing.
The 800 grams of fentanyl Oulton had could be turned into 400,000 to 500,000 life-threatening pills.
As more of these deadly pills circulate, the opioid epidemic is affecting a larger portion of the population.
Deena Loudon of Olney, Maryland, is among those living with its effects.
“I really love sharing Matthew with the world,” Loudon says as he flips through photos of his son.
One of his favorite memories is Matthew playing hockey – what Loudon calls his happy place.
But she also remembers her struggles with anxiety, which led her to turn to drugs. He started trying it in 10th grade. The following year his grades began to decline and he could not keep them high enough to stay in hockey.
“He was using Xanax to self-medicate and I think to help get some of that anxiety out of the way so he could live a somewhat normal life,” Loudon said.
Matthew has always been honest, almost wrongly, says Loudon. “He told me he had tried everything. Like everything. Heroin, meth, crack, you name it, cocaine, whatever — until I guess he found what made him feel the best, and that was Xanax.
And while a mother might worry, Loudon says, Matthew always tried to reassure her. “I know what I’m doing,” he told her.
She had heard of fentanyl in pills in their area.
“But you never think it’s going to happen to you,” Loudon said.
She said they even had a conversation about fentanyl the day before she died. “I was a little naive, wanting to stick my head in the sand and think, ‘I bet he knows what he’s doing.’ ”
On November 3, 2020, she found 21-year-old Matthew on the floor of their basement.
Matthew’s autopsy report lists his cause of death as fentanyl and despropionyl fentanyl poisoning.
“I’m not saying he overdosed. I say he died of fentanyl poisoning. …Honestly, like, at the end of the day, for me, he was murdered, right? Because he asked for one thing. They gave him something different. And it cost him his life. »
For a parent, she says, the hardest part is burying their child. It’s a pain she talks about in hopes of protecting other families.
“It’s Russian roulette,” she warns them. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
The number of pills seized by the DEA has skyrocketed in just three years, from 2.2 million in 2019 to 50.6 million in 2022.
The sheer volume of pills was one of the biggest challenges for the DEA lab, Oulton said. As the threat of fentanyl continues to grow, the Virginia facility is expanding to accommodate the necessary analysis.
The lab can test for something as simple as the presence of fentanyl, but something called the purity of the pill also offers important information. This means how much fentanyl is actually in one of these illicit pills.
“Lately, we’ve seen an increase in purity over the past year, when we used to say that about four out of 10 seizures we received would contain a lethal dose above 2 milligrams. In October of last year we started reporting that we had seen a slight increase, now we are saying that six out of 10 seizures we receive contain more than 2 milligrams,” Oulton said.
He says they find an average of 2.3 milligrams of fentanyl in each pill.
Two milligrams may be the threshold for what’s considered lethal, but Oulton says that doesn’t necessarily mean a pill containing 1.99 milligrams of fentanyl can’t be lethal.
“A pill can kill” is his warning.
“The message I would like to send is, don’t take it,” he said. “Don’t take the risk. It’s not worth your life.
Oulton says he and his team are constantly finding new and different drugs and substances in the pills – things they’ve never seen before.
A machine in the lab is almost the equivalent of an MRI in a doctor’s office, showing the structure and details of a pill.
“We will do what we call a structural elucidation to determine that this is a different version of a fentanyl to which a new compound and a new molecule have been added,” Oulton said.
They saw “hundreds and hundreds of unique combinations,” he said.
“We’ll see one with fentanyl, one with fentanyl and xylazine, one with fentanyl and caffeine, one with fentanyl and acetaminophen, and you don’t know what you’re getting.”
Xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer, poses a unique problem. It is not an opioid, so even when mixed with fentanyl, drugs designed to reverse an opioid overdose may not work.
Narcan or naloxone, one of the most common drugs for reversing overdoses, has become increasingly necessary as the prevalence and potency of illicit drugs increases. About 1.2 million doses of naloxone were dispensed by retail pharmacies in 2021, according to data published by the American Medical Association – nearly nine times more than those dispensed five years earlier.
Oulton wants to be clear: The problem isn’t with the pills prescribed by your doctor and dispensed by a pharmacy – it’s the pills on the illicit market.
These, warns Matthew’s mother, are easy to get.
“The first pills [Matthew] got was in high school. And it would roll over, float, and it was easy for her to get her hands on,” she said.
Loudon’s message for parents now: Keep your eyes peeled.
“Just watch what your kids are doing. Just keep your eyes open. And even sometimes when you keep your eyes open you can miss some of the warning signs, but I think a parent knows their child best, so keep talking.