Imagine a substance so potent that a few specks — the size of a few granules of table salt — can kill you.
If you didn’t think the stakes could get any deadlier in the emerging fentanyl crisis, it has. And it’s here.
Carfentanil is 100 times stronger than the synthetic opioid fentanyl and is typically used to sedate massive animals like elephants. As fentanyl seizures surge at the U.S.-Mexico border and the deaths blamed on fentanyl overdoses reach new highs, authorities in San Diego are alarmed they have begun to see its more potent cousin.
“There’s no question this is an epidemic with legs, and it’s sprinting,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson, who hosted a news conference downtown along with several local and federal law enforcement partners Friday. “This is not going to slow down.”
In one case, authorities in June searched the Clairemont home of a San Diego man accused of trafficking various drugs through the U.S. mail. In the bathroom investigators found a small baggie of 1.77 grams of carfentanil — enough doses to kill 86,000 people, according to a Postal Service inspector.
The emergence of carfentanil in the illicit market tests the limits of how far drug traffickers will take a new drug craze. In September, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public warning about carfentanil as it started surfacing in communities.
“We see it on the streets, often disguised as heroin,” DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said in the memo. “It is crazy dangerous.”
The attraction to selling such dangerous drugs as fentanyl and carfentanil is in the profits. One kilogram of fentanyl costs $32,000 but can be turned into 1 million pills. At $20 a pop, that’s worth $20 million to traffickers.
On the other hand, heroin costs three times more to produce than fentanyl, said David Shaw, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.
What’s perhaps most alarming is that most users don’t realize they are ingesting fentanyl. The substance is most often laced into cheap counterfeit oxycodone pills, along with other chemicals.
“They think they are getting one thing, when in fact what they are putting into their system is a deadly poison,” said Robinson.
And there’s really no way for the user to know, experts warn, as drug labs in Mexico can frequently create very convincing look-alikes.
“If you end up with a tainted dose, you’re done,” Robinson said. “You leave behind your children, you leave behind your family, you leave behind your spouse.”
Authorities analyzed one pill recovered at the scene of a fatal overdose in Imperial Beach in April that killed a 34-year-old man. The single pill contained 20 ingredients, including fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine, lidocaine, caffeine and other chemicals.
Agents in San Diego and Imperial counties have seized more than 20,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills this year, authorities said.
The fentanyl trend grew out of the painkiller addiction epidemic. As prescription painkillers proliferated in homes, patients who became hooked — or their children — turned to cheaper, street-available heroin to feed their habit. Counterfeit pills, often mixed with cheap fentanyl, have now flooded the marketplace.
“This addiction takes all the logic out of people’s thinking,” Robinson said of why addicts take such risks. “All they’re thinking about is getting the next high, they’re not realizing they’re probably going to kill themselves.”
The deaths have piled up as a result.
The county Medical Examiner’s Office has been at the forefront of tracking the epidemic through overdose deaths, using sophisticated technology to test for the presence of fentanyl. It has confirmed 40 deaths related to fentanyl so far this year and is waiting to confirm 11 more. Last year there were 33.
An additional two deaths this year are attributed to carfentanil.
It is a trend mirrored nationwide.
Investigators have identified a few trafficking routes feeding the U.S. fentanyl supply — including one that hits especially close to home.
More than 75 percent of the fentanyl coming through the southwestern border is being smuggled through ports of entry in San Diego and Imperial counties, authorities said.
The amount of fentanyl seized at the border locally has surged, from 30 kilograms in six seizures in fiscal 2015 to 480 kilograms in 54 seizures this year.
CBP officers have recently taken extra measures to handle the influx, including training drug-detecting dogs on the scent, introducing new kits to test for the drug in the field and beefing up personal protection to avoid direct contact with the substance. Just contact on skin can be fatal.
The dark web is another portal.
In the Clairemont case, Sky Gornik, 37, is accused of mass orders of gel tablets containing fentanyl and meth — 600 each week for the past two years — from a person in Oklahoma, who got the fentanyl from China. The alleged dealer is being prosecuted in Oklahoma and is accused of making the tablets himself, mixing the drugs with gelatin. The search of Gornik’s house also turned up ketamine and other unidentified substances.
In another recent case, a former Border Patrol agent is being prosecuted for his alleged part in a ring that trafficked “4ANPP,” the precursor chemical used to make fentanyl. The ingredient was mailed from China to San Ysidro to be smuggled into Mexico, where drug trafficking organizations manufacture fentanyl, according to prosecutors. The final drug is then smuggled back into the U.S. for distribution.
Cesar Daleo, 47, of San Diego, who worked as an agent here from 1992 to 2003, was arrested Aug. 28 after picking up a 4ANPP delivery from a post office box and trying to drive it across the border, according to the complaint. The package had already been intercepted in Los Angeles, and investigators replaced the chemical with a harmless substance and sent the package to its destination to see who would retrieve it. The 1 kilogram of 4ANPP inside was enough to make 25 kilograms of fentanyl.
Daleo admitted to 13 previous pickups, the complaint states.
The District Attorney’s Office is also ramping up prosecution efforts, including charging an alleged drug dealer with murder in connection with the fentanyl overdose death of a 26-year-old man.
“We are going to view these overdoses as an investigation for homicide. And we don’t want anyone to claim ignorance, that they don’t understand,” Interim District Attorney Summer Stephan warned.
She added: “Too many bodies in the morgue.”