Chemistry of a killer: Inside a DEA drug lab

Approximately two milligrams would be a fatal dose, so this would be about 1,500 lethal doses. The United States is in the grips of an opioid crisis. According to the CDC, more than 33,000 Americans died of opioid-related overdoses in 2015. Increasingly, these deaths aren’t just caused by painkillers or heroin, but by more potent synthetic opioids, like fentanyl. Chemists at the DEA’s Special Testing and Research Laboratory in Sterling, VA, say that, since 2009, the number of new synthetic opioids sold on the street has grown. More and more we are identifying new substances here in our laboratory, and new classes of drugs that haven’t really been encountered in seized drug evidence submitted by our Special Agents in the past. Some of these new mystery drugs are analogs of Fentanyl. An analog is a like a drug’s chemical sibling, structurally similar but with very different personalities. Labs in China are tweaking the chemistry to create stronger compounds that are then shipped to North America, where drug dealers cut it to make big profits on the street. These new analogs are impossible to fingerprint in the field. Lab work is needed to ID these dangerous, new killers. It’s impossible to tell just from looking at it that you’re handling or encountering one of these really potent, dangerous, synthetic drugs. And so we have to be very careful not to have an accidental exposure in the laboratory. To protect lab workers against accidental overdoses, they keep an overdose reversing drug, naloxone, close by. It often happens that in our laboratory we’ll identify a new fentanyl type compound that’s never been identified before. We have a lot of instrumentation that the chemists in our group use in the analysis and identification of fentanyl type substances. These instruments work by breaking down the samples and uncovering their individual chemical fingerprint. Different instruments achieve this in their own ways, but they have one thing in common, they help the DEA keep in step with the latest drugs sold on the street. As a country, we are heavily abusing opioids. My concern is that we’re going to continue to see a rise in the synthetic opioids because they’re easily accessible.

Stephen Childs

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