Synthetic Laboratory Made Drugs Leaves US Vulnerable

The ever-rising death toll from the synthetic opioid fentanyl showed graphically this week how vulnerable the United States has become to powerful drugs concocted in laboratories. On the same day that more than two dozen people were raced from a New Haven, Connecticut, park to emergency rooms after violent reactions to synthetic marijuana, federal authorities announced that more than 72,000 people had died of drug overdoses nationwide in 2017. Leading the death toll is the increasing number of fatalities from fentanyl.

In an unusual episode involving a batch of synthetic drugs, more than a dozen people fell ill in less than an hour in New Haven's central park on Wednesday. People lay unconscious. Others convulsed and vomited. First responders could barely keep up, sprinting from person to person; a news conference with the police chief was interrupted by word of another victim and medics rushing to administer treatment. All of those who took the drug survived, and authorities announced an arrest in connection with the incident.

The culprit was synthetic marijuana, a potent drug that has hospitalized hundreds of people in 10 states in recent months. Unlike previous overdose clusters around the country, "there is no indication of the presence of fentanyl" in samples of the synthetic marijuana being analyzed by the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Uri Shafir, acting assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's New Haven office. Early media reports had indicated the synthetic marijuana was laced with fentanyl.

Illicit fentanyl continues to do far more damage on the streets than other drugs. About 50 times more powerful than heroin, it is cheap and easy to make. It is being cut into heroin, cocaine and other drugs and is often pressed into pill form, tricking users who covet prescription medications. According to one medical specialist in Baltimore, users aware of the combination of drugs they can receive in a single purchase are calling the mixture "scramble."

"Seventy-five percent of the deaths we get are fentanyl related," said Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County, New Jersey, prosecutor. "It's the heroin laced with synthetic opioids that we're getting creamed with." Andrey Ostrovsky, president and chief executive of the Concerted Care Group in Maryland, a chain of three outpatient treatment centers, said positive tests for fentanyl among opioid users during the past three months were in the 30 to 40 percent range. The organization sees about 1,300 people each day.

Much of the nation's supply of fentanyl is coming in large quantities from Mexico, where it is made by cartels, and from China, where it is made in clandestine labs and purchased on the dark web. State and federal authorities are cracking down on the drug, with prosecutors more aggressively using laws that hold drug dealers criminally liable for overdose deaths. Sessions has targeted 10 areas of the country to bring charges against anyone dealing fentanyl, regardless of the quantity. The Justice Department has tripled fentanyl prosecutions across the country, seized thousands of kilograms of heroin and fentanyl and brought the first cases charging Chinese nationals with selling large quantities of the drug to Americans.

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