Tracking the opioid crisis: Inside the DEA’s secret lab
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Located among the warehouses of Dulles, Virginia, is one of the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s forensic laboratories. It is one of eight places in the nation where scientists analyze illegal drugs and try to get past what is leading to deadly overdoses.
Beginning in the late 1990s with the overprescription of prescription drugs, the opioid epidemic has continued to rage in the United States for decades. What has changed is the drug that kills more half a million people during the past 20 years.
CNN was given rare access to the secret lab where DEA tests seized illegal drugs to understand what would happen next.
“The market is always changing, so we’re trying to do everything we can from the scientific basis to keep up with that,” said Scott Oulton, deputy assistant administrator for the DEA’s Office of Forensic Science. with CNN Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. .
Holding a bag of white powdered precursor fentanyl – one of the chemicals used in the production of opium – Oulton explained that illegally manufactured painkillers continue to dominate the drugs that officials searching.
“This kilogram can be converted to fentanyl to make about 800 grams,” he said. “So it doesn’t cost that much material, it’s pretty cheap, inexpensive to get.”
Fentanyl is the most dangerous drug in the United States, and it is often found in combination with other illicit drugs, including cocaine and heroin. But increasingly, fentanyl is appearing in illegal drugs disguised as common prescription drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, even Adderall.
Users who buy drugs on the street that look like prescription drugs could end up with a powerful, potentially deadly drug they never intended to take.
“More than 99% of what we see is fake. They contain fentanyl,” Oulton said of the pills the agency is holding.
The 800 grams of fentanyl that Oulton holds could turn into 400,000 to 500,000 potentially lethal pills.
As more and more of these deadly drugs enter circulation, the opioid epidemic is reaching more people.
Deena Loudon of Olney, Maryland, is among those living with its effects.
“I really enjoy sharing Matthew with the world,” Loudon said as he flipped through photos of his son.
One of her favorite memories is of Matthew playing hockey – what Loudon calls his happy place.
But she also recalls his struggles with anxiety, which led him to turn to drugs. He started learning them in 10th grade. By the next year, his grades started to drop and he couldn’t keep them high enough to continue playing hockey.
Loudon said: “He is using Xanax to help himself with self-treatment and I think that will help take some of that anxiety away so he can live a normal life.
Loudon says that Matthew has always been honest, almost by mistake. “He told me he had tried everything. Like everything. Heroin, meth, crack, you name it, cocaine, whatever – until I guess he found what made him feel the best, and that was Xanax.”
Loudon says, no matter how worried a mother is, Matthew always tries to reassure her. “I know what I’m doing,” he would tell her.
She had heard about fentanyl appearing in pills in their area.
“But you never thought that would happen to you,” says Loudon.
She said they even talked about fentanyl the day before he died. “I was a bit naive, wanting to bury my head in the sand and thinking, ‘I bet he knows what he’s doing.’ ”
On November 3, 2020, she found 21-year-old Matthew on the floor of their basement.
Matthew’s autopsy report listed his cause of death as fentanyl and despropionyl fentanyl intoxication.
“I’m not saying he overdosed. I said he died of fentanyl poisoning. … Honestly, for me, at the end of the day, he was murdered, right? Because he asked for one thing. They gave him something different. And it took his life.”
For parents, the hardest thing is burying their child, she said. It is a pain she speaks out in hopes of keeping other families safe.
“It’s Russian roulette,” she warned them. “You never know what you will get.”
The number of drugs that the DEA has seized has skyrocketed in just three years, from 2.2 million in 2019 to 50.6 million in 2022.
Absolute drug volume is one of the biggest challenges facing the DEA lab, Oulton said. As the fentanyl threat continues to grow, the Virginia facility is expanding to accommodate the required analysis.
A lab can test for something as simple as the presence of fentanyl, but something called pill purity also offers important insight. This means how much fentanyl is actually in one of these illegal pills.
“We recently saw an increase in purity last year where we used to say that about 4 out of 10 seizures we received would contain lethal doses greater than 2. milligrams. Since last October, we started reporting that we saw an increase. Now we’re saying that six out of 10 arrests we’ve received contain more than 2 milligrams,” Oulton said.
He says they are finding an average of 2.3 milligrams of fentanyl in each pill.
Two milligrams might be the threshold for what’s considered lethal, but Oulton says that doesn’t necessarily mean a pill with 1.99 milligrams of fentanyl can’t be lethal.
“A pill can kill” was his warning.
“The message I want to send is don’t take it,” he said. “Don’t take chances. It’s not worth your life.”
Oulton said he and his team are constantly finding new and different drugs and substances in pills — things they’ve never seen before.
A lab machine is roughly equivalent to a medical room magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, showing the structure and detail of a pill.
“We’re going to do what we call structure elucidation to determine that this is another version of fentanyl to which new compounds and molecules have been added,” Oulton said.
“They’ve seen “hundreds and hundreds of unique combinations,” he said.
“We’re going to see one with fentanyl, one with fentanyl and xylazine, one with fentanyl and caffeine, one with fentanyl and acetaminophen, and you don’t know what you’re getting.”
Xylazine, a veterinary sedative, poses a particular problem. It is not an opiate, so even if it is mixed with fentanyl, drugs designed to reverse an opiate overdose may not work.
Narcan or naloxone, one of the more common overdose reversal drugs, has become increasingly necessary as the prevalence and potency of illicit drugs increases. About 1.2 million doses of naloxone were dispensed by retail pharmacies by 2021, according to data released by the American Medical Association — nearly nine times the number distributed five years earlier.
Oulton wants to clarify: The problem is not with the pills prescribed by your doctor and dispensed by the pharmacy – but the pills on the illegal market.
Matthew’s mother warned, such things are easy to find.
“The First Pills [Matthew] obtained in high school. And it just flipped out, hovered around, and it was easy for him to get his hands on,” she said.
Loudon’s message to parents right now: Keep your eyes open.
“Just be mindful of what your child is doing. You just need to keep your eyes open. And even sometimes, when you keep your eyes open, you might miss some of the warning signs, but I think parents know their kids best, so keep talking.”