Underground labs in China are devising potent new opiates faster than authorities can respond
CINCINNATI, OHIO—Miller Atkinson was an addict from the very first time he shot up with heroin. “I fell in love with it. Everything else fell to the wayside,” says the 24-year-old. “There was nothing that could have stopped me from getting high.”
And that’s what he did every day, for 9 months, in his family’s upper middle class neighborhood in this Midwestern city. He dropped out of the University of Cincinnati. Like other users, he built up a tolerance to heroin and needed larger doses to find euphoria. Then, about 4 years ago, a powerful new combination hit the streets here: heroin cut with fentanyl, a synthetic opiate about 100 times more potent than morphine that’s used to alleviate pain during and after surgery and in late-stage cancers. “It started trickling in, and we were like, ‘Wow, that was good, we need to get more of that,’” he says. “It was more intense.” So much so that friends who shot up with fentanyl-laced heroin started dying.
Atkinson was one of the lucky ones. After several misdemeanors and a felony heroin possession charge, he got his life back on track, and he is now studying for the law school entrance exam.
Fentanyl and its analogs are new faces of a worsening scourge. The United States consumes 85% of all the world’s natural and synthetic opiates, which in 2015 factored in 33,091 U.S. deaths, up more than 4000 from the previous year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. When average U.S. life expectancies for men and women edged downward last year, for the first time in decades, many health professionals blamed opiate abuse.
The opium poppy is no longer the starting point for many of the opiates on the street. The new compounds, often sold mixed with heroin, originate in illicit labs in China. “For the cartels, why wait for a field of poppies to grow and harvest if you can get your hands on the precursor chemicals and cook a batch of fentanyl in a lab?” says Tim Reagan, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) Cincinnati office.