DEA tries to keep pace with chemists

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Erika Kinetz

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.

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