Pubdate: Sun, 25 Dec 2016
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2016 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Erika Kinetz, The Associated Press


WASHINGTON (AP) - No one knew what was in the baggie. It was just a
few tablespoons of crystalline powder seized back in April, clumped
like snow that had partially melted and frozen again.

Emily Dye, a 27-year-old forensic chemist at the Drug Enforcement
Administration's Special Testing and Research Laboratory, did not know
if anyone had died from taking this powder, or how much it would take
to kill you.

What she did know was this: New drugs were appearing in the lab every
other week, things never before seen in this unmarked gray building in
Sterling, Virginia. Increasingly, these new compounds were synthetic
opioids designed to mimic fentanyl, a prescription painkiller up to 50
times stronger than heroin.

This, Dye realized, 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. doorsteps guaranteed.

More Americans now die of drug overdoses than in car crashes. Almost
two-thirds of them, more than 33,000 in 2015 alone, took some form of
opioid - either heroin, prescription painkillers or, increasingly,
synthetic compounds like U-47700 and furanyl fentanyl, manufactured by
nimble chemists to stay one step ahead of the law.

It is now forensic chemists like Dye who are on the front line of the
nation's war on drugs, teasing out molecular structures of mystery
drugs so they can be named, tracked and regulated.

Dye held the baggie of powder in her gloved hand.

"Man," she said. "I've got to figure out what this is."

Dye had an idea where to start. The sample came in tagged as suspected
fentanyl. Dye picked up a vial with 2 milligrams of fentanyl from her
long, clean lab bench. The container looked empty. Up close,
squinting, she could see a spray of white dust clinging to its sides.
The contents of that vial will kill 99 percent of the people who take

Dye first handled fentanyl three years ago. If she breathed it or
touched it, she could die. It was nerve-wracking then - and still is.

The vial was made of glass. Dye had drop-tested it and knew that if it
rolled off and hit the hard floor, it would not shatter. She rapped
the vial against the benchtop, trying to make the powder inside more
visible. Bang, bang, bang. It was still invisible.

"There's nothing more terrifying than dealing with a lethal dose of
material," she said. Her hands were steady. Dye won modeling
competitions for poise while she was at Graham High School in
Bluefield, Virginia, a town of some 5,000 people on the eastern edge
of Appalachian coal country.

Dye's mother is a nurse who also deals with hazardous material. Mother
and daughter both know that risk is not something to worry about, it's
something to manage. 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 -
near her workspace. Just in case. And, on samples like this, she never
works alone.

The Special Testing Laboratory is one of eight forensic chemistry labs
the DEA runs. Focused on research, it has a worn functionality that
gives it an academic feel. Down echoing hallways are labs packed with
fume hoods and high-tech machines sprouting tubes and wires. Beakers
dry by the sinks. "Safety First" signs have been taped to the doors.
Mostly, it is silent.

Forty chemists work here. Their job is to identify substances seized
by law enforcement in the field before they kill or kill again. One of
the compounds they identified is carfentanil, which is so potent it
was used as a chemical weapon before it hit the North American drug
supply over the summer.

"Right now we're seeing the emergence of a new class - that's
fentanyl-type opioids," Dye's boss, Jill Head, explained. "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 this new
class of synthetics is far more lethal.

Back in 2012 and 2013, when reports of fentanyl derivatives started
coming in to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, chemists
chucked them in the "other" category. Today those "other" substances
are one of the fastest-growing groups of illicit chemicals tracked by
the agency.

"New opioids keep emerging," said Martin Raithelhuber, an expert in
illicit synthetic drugs at the U.N. They deserve their own category,
he added, but that will take time.

Once, forensic chemists like Dye confronted a familiar universe of
methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin. Drug dealers, users and DEA
agents generally knew what substance they were handling.

Today, things are different. This is a golden age of chemical
discovery - and subterfuge. Dealers may not know that the high-purity
heroin from Mexico they're selling has been laced with fentanyl. Users
may not realize the robin's-egg-blue oxycodone tablets they're taking
are spiked with acetylfentanyl.

If field agents bust a clandestine drug lab and see a cloud of white
powder in the air, they no longer assume it's cocaine. They run.

"Had I come on board at a time when everything was cocaine and heroin
and meth and marijuana, it's not an exciting day," Dye said. "Now I
come to work and see something that's never been seen."

"And it can kill somebody," she added.

The sprint to market unregulated chemicals is driven by demand in the
U.S., where users gobble up 80 percent of the world's opioids,
according to the DEA.

Dye was just 6 years old when Purdue unveiled OxyContin as a
breakthrough drug, a powerful yet supposedly nonaddictive opioid that
would revolutionize pain management.

Instead, aggressive marketing and unscrupulous doctors helped push a
generation of people into addiction.

Dye saw them all around her in Bluefield. Her dad's pharmacy was her
window on the crisis.

"People used to break into his store and steal Oxys," Dye said. "He
became friends with a lot of cops." She did, too.

In high school, Dye fell in love with chemistry. Drawn to linearity
and logic, she found beauty in the way equations yielded answers.

The year Dye graduated, 2007, Purdue Pharma and its executives paid
more than $630 million in legal penalties for willfully
misrepresenting the drug's addiction risks.

By then it was too late.

The seeds of a new industry had already taken root. Today, it is
almost as easy to order synthetic opioids on the open internet as it
is to buy a pair of shoes, The Associated Press found in an
investigation published in October . Payments can be made by Western
Union, MoneyGram or Bitcoin, and products are shipped by DHL, UPS or
EMS - the express mail service of China's state-run postal service. As
the lines between licit and illicit commerce blurred, it became
possible for just about anyone with internet access to score an
ever-changing array of lethal chemicals.

By the time Dye was in college studying forensic chemistry, U.S.
regulators were cracking down on prescription drug abuse. Users turned
from pills to heroin, which was cheap and relatively easy to get.
Between 2010 and 2014 heroin overdoses in the U.S. tripled, according
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three-quarters of
today's heroin users first used prescription opioids, a JAMA
Psychiatry study showed.

Drug dealers soon learned that if they cut potent synthetic opioids,
like fentanyls, into drugs like heroin, they could make vastly more
money. Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids - a category dominated
by illicit fentanyl - more than tripled from 2013 to 2015, hitting
9,580 last year, CDC data show.

On June 28, two months after the singer Prince died of a fentanyl
overdose, Dye walked down a long, white hallway, past a heavy metal
grate and into a dim room known as "the vault." She was surrounded by
packages of evidence, seized from the field and waiting for analysis.
She checked out an envelope wrapped in plastic wrap and yellow tape
that had come in on April 13, and placed it in a steel lockbox with
her name on it.

Back in the lab, Dye unwrapped the package and found a silver pouch
the size of a small handbag. Inside that was a palm-size baggie.

She scooped up a dot of powder from the baggie with a thin metal
spatula and gingerly placed it in a small glass crimp vial. As she
worked, she treated the material as if it were radioactive, twisting
the spatula around with her fingers to avoid contamination. Using a
glass pipette, she transferred a few drops of methanol into the vial
and clamped it shut.

Dye dropped the sample into a mass spectrometer. The machine sucked
the evidence through a copper-colored wire and bombarded it with
electrons. That broke it up into many different small pieces. "Kind of
like when you drop a puzzle," she said.

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

None matched. This was new.

Dye had made a discovery.

China has banned many synthetic drugs, but new chemicals continue to
sprout like weeds. In October and November, the AP identified 12
Chinese vendors hawking furanyl fentanyl and U-47700 - drugs that are
not banned in China - as substitutes for blacklisted drugs. All
offered their products via the Korean business-to-business platform

"Most customers choose the U-47700 now," a man from XiWang Chemical
Co. who called himself Adam Schexnayder emailed. "Although U-47700 is
weaker than fentanyl. But it is a good opioid product. You can try it.
How about it?"

Contacted by the AP, Schexnayder responded with a graphic Chinese
obscenity, but said nothing more. The site has since vanished.

EC21 blocked searches for furanyl fentanyl and U-47700 after the AP
called to ask about the chemicals, though "heroinn" still yielded
results on Wednesday. The site has banned more than 768 search terms
and is working with a developer to block changing patterns of
forbidden terms more effectively, said Kim Min-Jeong, a service team
manager. "We spend a significant amount of operating costs and labor
on auditing."


The closest match to Dye's evidence in the lab's database was a
compound called butyryl fentanyl. But it wasn't the same. In her
sample, distinctive small peaks kept popping up after taller ones.

She and her colleagues ran the evidence through a nuclear magnetic
resonance spectrometer, which pulses samples with a magnetic field to
help 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 and used it to test their theory.

On July 26, Dye ran the reference standard they'd purchased through
the mass spectrometer. The result matched their evidence exactly. Now
they knew what they had on their hands.

"It's 4-fluoroisobutyrylfentanyl," Dye said.

Case closed.

What had Dye discovered?

4-fluoroisobutyrylfentanyl - 4-FIBF for short -has exactly the same
weight and chemical composition as one of the compounds China banned
in October 2015. The only difference is the arrangement of three
carbon atoms.

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

Shanghai Xianchong Chemical Co., a trading company that operates from
a small, spare office on a leafy street in central Shanghai, was one
of them. Shanghai Xianchong started fielding requests for 4-FIBF
around April, according to the manager, a clean-cut man in a white
polo shirt named Jammi Gao.

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

He refused to ship opioids, like the ultrapotent carfentanil, that are
banned from general use in the U.S. But 4-FIBF is so new to the street
it is not a controlled substance in either the U.S. or China.

Drug users yearn for better chemistry, for highs with incredible
analgesic power that go on and on. 4-FIBF showed promise. It was
strong and cheap and though it produced little euphoria, it lasted a
long time, users reported in online forums. Several said it could be
used like methadone, to control opioid withdrawal symptoms. One
user-turned-dealer called 4-FIBF "a miracle molecule."

But 4-FIBF was so strong that getting the dose right was a problem.
"Eyeball this, ask to die. 'nuff said," one user noted in March.

None of the users replied to AP's requests for comment.

Back in the lab, Dye peeled off her gloves and tossed them into a
hazardous waste container. She didn't know users were already warning
each other not to go overboard chasing a heroin high that never kicked
in with 4-FIBF. She didn't know about the rough dosing schedules
addicts had worked out. And she didn't know that 4-FIBF gave some
people satisfying, sleep-through-the-night results when they stuck it
up their rectum.

Dye would go home, safe, to her dog. Maybe tomorrow she would find the
next new thing in an evidence bag on her bench. User forums were
already buzzing with talk of things like cyclopentyl fentanyl and
acryl fentanyl.

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

Associated Press writer Youkyung Lee in Seoul, South Korea, and video
journalist Aritz Parra and news researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai
contributed to this report.
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MAP posted-by: Matt