The Fight Against Fentanyl and the Forensic Chemists Who Track It

May 21, 2017 10:53 PM

Fentanyl is a legitimate medicine prescribed for cancer patients to help alleviate pain, but it's also being called the "killer chemical."

Black market fentanyl is a high-powered, man-made version of the painkiller that is increasing in presence and strength in the Twin Cities, according to Camala Dubach, a forensic chemist with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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"We've seen more of it in the lab in the past two years," she said. "It's common to see now."

Since 2014, experts say just about anybody who bought street drugs or counterfeit versions in an attempt to chase a higher high could've consumed fentanyl, thinking they were taking something else. Investigative sources have said they believe Prince thought he was taking the prescription painkiller hydrocodone for chronic pain.

While mostly considered a back alley drug, fentanyl gained notoriety with the death of Prince. The autopsy report from the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office last year listed fentanyl toxicity as the rock star's cause of death. It went onto say his was an accidental overdose.

"It only takes a sprinkling of powder, just three milligrams can be a fatal amount," said Sara Norris, a chemist at a DEA laboratory in Chicago. 

RELATED: Medical Examiner: 'Fentanyl Toxicity' Killed Prince

Toxicology results revealed Prince's blood fentanyl level measured 67.8 milligrams. Three is considered fatal by experts. His liver fentanyl level topped 435 milligrams. Anything above 69 is toxic, according to investigators. And his gastric fentanyl registered at 14,000, an extraordinarily high amount, and more than his 112-pound body could handle, according to sources.

Prince was the most recognizable name to die from fentanyl last year, but not the only one. In Hennepin County, 39 people died from ingesting fentanyl, and in Ramsey County 17 people passed away.

"These are preventable deaths, and more work needs to be done," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

Even before Prince's death, the DEA had already issued a nationwide alert in the form of a public service announcement in 2015. In the warning, Jack Reilly, then the special agent in charge of the Chicago office said, "It's flowing from China to Canada and Mexico, into Chicago and then spreading through the Midwest into Minnesota and Wisconsin."

Multiple sources confirmed that in the year leading up to Prince's overdose, there weren't any prescriptions for controlled medications in his name in Minnesota. That prompted law enforcement to question whether he or someone else bought the fentanyl, not knowing it was mislabeled or how powerful it was.

MORE: Prince: One Year Later

Sources say the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension analyzed some pills found at Paisley Park that were falsely stamped with "Watson 385" on them.

Said Jill Oliveira, a spokesperson with the BCA: "Watson 385 is a legitimate prescription-only medicine which contains acetaminophen and hydrocodone, and we see it in the lab all the time."

However, two dozen of those tablets contained a different chemical cocktail of fentanyl, lidocaine and a newer drug called U-4770, or U-4 on the street.

The BCA handles drug testing for local agencies across the state, while the DEA handles drug screening at the regional and national level.  Dubach, the forensic chemist, works at one of the eight labs in Chicago which tests for 13 states.

"Our job is to identify substances seized by law enforcement, and if they think it might be fentanyl we make it a priority," she said.

The lab is situated inside a downtown Chicago high-rise with security guards at the entrance. Thirty-thousand boxes, bags and containers of evidence are stored behind locked metal gates. Access is limited and everything is safeguarded, including chemists, who wear protective gear to avoid exposure to the unknown.

On average, 500 undetermined substances are tested every month in the Chicago lab. That amounts to 6,000 a year.   Chemists measure the weight of a sample and also the purity. Then, a color test is done during which a liqud is dropped onto a sample.

"You can tell if it's starting to turn a reddish-purple color, that's a sign of heroin," Norris said.

The DEA doesn't just take Norris' word for it -- more extensive testing is done on every sample using various machines for further confirmation. In recent years, chemists have identified 15 fentanyl-related formulas. Dubach said it's a challenge to keep up because dealers are constantly changing the chemical make-up of fentanyl to stay ahead of the law.

"Where fentanyl might be illegal, maybe they make a different formula of it with compounds that aren't illegal," Dubach said. "Then they can distribute those, and it's how they circumvent the law to try and make a profit."

The Minnesota Department of Health tracks drug overdose deaths in the state. A spokesperson said those related to fentanyl aren't specifically noted, but most can be attributed to at least in part to fentanyl. In 2000, the health department reported six people died in the state of fentanyl-related overdoses. In 2015, the figure was 54. 

As for the investigation into where Prince obtained the fentanyl, Jason Kamerud with the Carver County Sheriff's Department confirmed it's still an active and ongoing case. 

Credits

Beth McDonough

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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