Saturday, June 10, 2006

DEA tests Mexico lab for source of tainted heroin

The Chicago Sun-Times

DEA agents are in Mexico working with authorities to determine whether the recent bust of a lab there is connected to clusters of fatal fentanyl overdoses across the U.S., including 60 in Cook County.

Five Mexican nationals, including a chemist, were arrested by Mexican authorities during a raid May 28 in Toluca, Mexico, federal officials said Monday. One of the five was believed to have been arrested in California about 10 years ago on similar charges of manufacturing fentanyl, sources said. Investigators were checking his background.

U.S. drug czar John Walters said the lab was suspected of being the principal source of fentanyl pushed into the U.S. drug supply of heroin and cocaine, causing deaths in eight states, including Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware. He estimated there could be some 1 million doses of the tainted drug on U.S. streets, and urged all addicts to be cautious and seek help.

"The level of the threat right now is troubling, and we're not quite sure of how far-reaching it is,'' Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said at a briefing in Chicago. "The drug traffickers have substantially poisoned the drug supply in the United States.''

DEA still testing

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials cautioned that testing had not been completed on the clandestine lab and it was not yet known whether it was producing fentanyl or how much.

"We have agents down there working with the Mexican officials,'' said Christopher Hoyt, a spokesman for the DEA's Chicago field office. When the pattern of overdoses emerged in cities including Chicago; Camden, N.J.; and Philadelphia, the DEA began collecting samples for comparison to see whether the drug was coming from the same source.

All that testing is still pending, and now materials gathered in Mexico will be tested as well, Hoyt said. He added it also is still possible that the fentanyl turning up in the drug supply has been diverted from a pharmacy or hospital.

The powerful drug, which can be prescribed as a painkiller and is hundreds of times stronger than heroin or morphine, has been linked to 60 fatal overdoses in Cook County since April 2005, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office. The majority of cases have been in 2006.

In fact, in Chicago alone, there have been 548 suspected non-fatal overdoses since April 13, 2006, police said.

While the DEA continues investigating where the fentanyl is being made, Chicago Police investigators were still searching for the local dealers and gangs that were selling it on the city streets.

But the problem is widespread.

"It's not one gang, it's not one area of the city and it's not one city,'' the source said.

The problem first emerged here in February when Chicago detectives noticed a pattern of fatal overdoses on the South Side. The CPD has since formed a task force with the DEA, and the Cook County medical examiner's office is regularly screening for fentanyl in overdose victims.

By Annie Sweeney


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