PHOENIX (AP) — U.S. agents in southern Arizona said Thursday they have seized up to 440 pounds of what they suspect is a chemical precursor often used to make the dangerous drug fentanyl, a frightening sign that manufacturers may be moving to the production of a deadly synthetic opioid. American soil.
The powdered chemical was flown by agents Thursday morning from a residence and warehouse in Tucson, where it has been sent in recent months in a series of suspicious packages from China whose contents have not been identified, said Leo Lamas, deputy special agent in charge of national security investigations in Tucson.
There were no immediate reports of arrests after agents with federal search warrants entered the locations and found no people inside.
“If criminal entrepreneurs start making fentanyl here, it could be a scary situation for the United States,” said Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “If the chemicals do turn out to be precursors, it could really exacerbate the spread of fentanyl and overdose.”
“Once you have that kind of drug addiction, it can quickly take hold and spread,” Vigil added.
Lamas said the agency launched an investigation several months ago after it became known that suspicious packages containing the chemical, which he did not name, were being shipped to the two locations from China. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Tucson police provided important support, he said.
He said the agency is still investigating who was involved in the delivery and storage of the chemicals, and does not yet know if they were part of a local crime ring or an international drug enforcement organization.
If further investigation reveals that the chemicals were intended to make fentanyl, Thursday’s seizure could be a new manufacturing model, making it more affordable to consumers in the United States.
The DEA already lists fentanyl as the deadliest drug in the country. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of the country’s 107,000 overdose deaths in 2021 were attributable to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
Originally developed as a legal drug to treat severe pain from diseases including cancer, Mexican drug cartels have in recent years produced much of the illegal fentanyl found in the US by smuggling it in vehicles or tying it to pedestrians crossing ports of entry along the international border. .
“I think fentanyl is probably the most dangerous controlled substance we’ve ever had to deal with,” Lamas said.
The drug is sold in a variety of forms, including blue pills similar to oxycodone, known in southern Arizona as “Mexican oxy.” In powder form, fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine.
But investigators in recent months have noticed the first signs that manufacturers may be trying to manufacture fentanyl in the US, Lamas said.
“During the last, I would say, a year or so, we started to find tablet presses inside the United States,” he said.
“Of course, these criminal organizations know the focus is on the border,” Lamas said of the interception effort. He added that importing precursors from China and producing fentanyl domestically would be “just another vehicle for these criminal organizations to try to sell their products in the United States.”
Cheap to make and buy, fentanyl has gained popularity in recent years. But even a tiny dose can be lethal, because it’s 50 times more potent than heroin, and manufacturers usually don’t worry about quality control when compressing powder into tablets or adding other drugs to it.
Fentanyl addiction has spread among the homeless in Los Angeles and other major Western cities, where it is sold in small doses at a low price.
“What makes it a lot more dangerous is that it really doesn’t discriminate economically,” Lamas said. “It’s available to everyone.”