DEA chemists race to iden­tify syn­thetic drugs

U.S. facing dead­li­est ad­dic­tion cri­sis

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY ERIKA KINETZ

Emily Dye walked down an echo­ing white hall­way, past a metal grate and into a dim room known as “the vault.” She checked out a pack­age of ev­i­dence wrapped in plas­tic wrap and placed it in a steel lock­box with her name on it.

New drugs were ap­pear­ing every other week in the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Spe­cial Test­ing and Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory, an un­marked gray build­ing in North­ern Vir­ginia.

Ms. Dye, a 27-year-old DEA chemist, knew her sam­ple could be one of them.

“Man,” she said. “I’ve got to fig­ure out what this is.”

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 ever-shift­ing 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,” Ms. 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.

Ms. Dye has recom­mit­ted to every safety pro­to­col she was ever taught. One, safety glasses. Two, lab coat, but­toned. Three, pow­der-free dis­pos­able ni­trile gloves. Four, 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 and pulled out a palm-sized bag­gie.

She 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.

Af­ter trans­fer­ring a few drops of methanol into the vial, she clamped it shut and dropped it into a mass spec­trom­e­ter. The ma­chine sucked the ev­i­dence through a cop­per-col­ored wire and bom­barded it with elec­trons to break it into small pieces.

“Kind of like when you drop a puz­zle,” Ms. Dye said.

The re­sult­ing pat­tern of peaks is akin to a chem­i­cal fin­ger­print. Ms. Dye com­pared the re­sult with the lab’s li­brary of ap­prox­i­mately 1,500 known drugs.

None matched. This was some­thing new.

She and her col­leagues ran the ev­i­dence through a nu­clear mag­netic res­o­nance spec­trom­e­ter to map the po­si­tion of dif­fer­ent atoms. Then they guessed. They bought a sam­ple of the com­pound they thought they had from a le­git­i­mate re­search chem­i­cal com­pany.

On July 26, Ms. Dye ran that ref­er­ence stan­dard through the mass spec­trom­e­ter. The re­sult matched the ev­i­dence ex­actly.

“It’s 4-flu­o­roisobu­tyrylfen­tanyl,” Ms. Dye said.

Long be­fore Ms. Dye made her dis­cov­ery, Chi­nese ven­dors were of­fer­ing 4-flu­o­roisobu­tyrylfen­tanyl — 4-FIBF for short — for sale.

Shang­hai Xian­chong Chem­i­cal Co., a trad­ing com­pany with a spare of­fice in cen­tral Shang­hai, was one of them. Shang­hai Xian­chong started field­ing re­quests for 4-FIBF around April, said man­ager Jammi Gao, a clean-cut man in a white polo shirt.

Mr. Gao said in an email he could sell 4-FIBF for $6,000 a kilo­gram, though later he de­nied ever 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.

Back in the lab, Ms. Dye peeled off her gloves. She didn’t know users were warn­ing each other not to over­dose chas­ing a heroin high that never kicked in with 4-FIBF. She didn’t know about the dos­ing sched­ules ad­dicts had al­ready worked out. And she didn’t know that 4-FIBF gave some peo­ple sat­is­fy­ing, sleep-through-the-night re­sults when in­serted up their rec­tum.

Ms. Dye would go home, safe, to her dog. Maybe to­mor­row she would find the next new thing in an ev­i­dence bag on her bench.

But else­where, all across Amer­ica, peo­ple would not make it through the night. By the time Ms. Dye fin­ished work the next day, an­other 90 Amer­i­cans would be dead of opi­oid over­doses.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.