DEA tries to keep pace with chemists
washington» New drugs were appearing every other week in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s special research lab in northern Virginia. Emily Dye, a 27-year-old DEA chemist, knew her sample could be one of them.
The proliferation of rapidly evolving synthetic opioids has become so fierce that the DEA says they now constitute an entire new class of drugs, which are fueling the deadliest addiction crisis the United States has ever seen.
The fentanyl-like drugs are pouring in primarily from China, U.S. officials say — an assertion Beijing maintains has not been substantiated. Laws cannot keep pace with the speed of scientific innovation. As soon as one substance is banned, chemists synthesize slightly different, and technically legal, molecules and sell that substance online, delivery to U.S. doorstops guaranteed.
Today, it is almost as easy to order an array of synthetic opioids online from China as it is to buy a pair of shoes.
“Right now we’re seeing the emergence of a new class, that’s fentanyl-type opioids,” Dye’s boss, Jill Head, said. “Based on the structure, there can be many, many more substitutions on that molecule that we have not yet seen.”
Entrepreneurial chemists have been creating designer alternatives to cannabis, amphetamine, cocaine and Ecstasy for years. But the new synthetics are far more lethal; in some cases, an amount smaller than a poppy seed can kill.
Dye has recommitted to every safety protocol she was ever taught. Safety glasses. Lab coat. Powder-free disposable nitrile gloves. Face mask. She placed an emergency naloxone injection kit — an antidote for opioid overdose — on her lab bench. Just in case.
Then she unwrapped the evidence, scooped up a dot of powder, and gingerly placed it in a small vial. As she worked, she treated the material as if it were radioactive.
It was 4-fluoroisobutyrylfentanyl. Long before Dye identified it, Chinese vendors were offering 4-FIBF for sale. Shanghai Xianchong Chemical, a trading company with an office in central Shanghai, was one of them. It started fielding requests for 4-FIBF around April, said manager Jammi Gao, a cleancut man in a white polo shirt.
Gao said in an e-mail he could sell 4FIBF for $6,000 a kilogram, although later he denied brokering a deal. He refused to ship illegal drugs, but 4-FIBF is so new to the street it is not a controlled substance in either the U.S. or China.