FL: DEA lab chemists seeing new trend: Drugs, fake prescription pills more potent than ever

Chemists discovered dozens of chemical mixtures they’ve never seen in street drugs seized by federal authorities. Those same chemists see a trend pushing more pure, more mixed illegal narcotics that showed up at a DEA laboratory in unprecedented volumes this year.

Agnes Winokur oversees the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration‘s Southeast Laboratory, perhaps the DEA’s busiest. Federal agents from DEA, FBI, ATF and the Federal Bureau of Prisons in five states and in the Caribbean send illicit narcotics seized in criminal investigations. They show up as court exhibits for analysis.

In the fiscal year that ended in September, the southeast lab examined more than 10,000 exhibits, more than any regional agency lab, Winokur said. CBS News Miami toured the facility. Agents displayed kilos of rainbow fentanyl and other counterfeit drugs disguised as prescription pills.

The lab’s chemists who use specialized tools to assist law enforcement in prosecuting manufacturers see a startling trend.

“Unfortunately, we get unknown compounds way more often than I wish that we did,” Winokur, DEA Southeast Lab Director, said.

In the last six months, analysts discovered 59 compounds they had not seen before, Winokur said. Analysts have a nuclear magnetic resonance machine, which breaks substances down to atoms for chemists to study.  Increasingly, they find methamphetamine, cocaine and fake prescription pills more potent than ever.

Two milligrams of fentanyl can kill, according to the DEA. Seized pills in the southeast lab average more than two milligrams, Winokur said. Her chemists have found up to four killer doses within one counterfeit pill.

“Now imagine when you add a third drug and then a fourth and then a fifth and it really literally keeps going,” Winokur said. “We have had samples that have had seven or eight different drugs. So the danger is that much more than what you’re hearing us talk about, you’re hearing on the news because sometimes there’s not even studies, pharmacological studies, toxicology report studies to having the effects that a pill with eight different drugs have on our body.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 108,000 Americans, which is more than the population of Miami Beach, died from drug poisonings. Two out of three of those deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to CDC research.

“When I see the people that are being affected, especially when it’s kids, it hits hard,” Winokur said. “When I hear the parents speak, when I see that it comes out of nowhere when you just had no idea this could be happening to your child or they were struggling or they didn’t know or they just made a simple mistake and they just lost their lives. So for me, as lab director, it’s how can I get this message across.”

She said her staff seeks to be messengers beyond testifying in court about exhibits analyzed and supplying data that drives public safety alerts. What is at stake feels personal.

“It’s our families, our communities, our friends,” Winokur said. “This is personal and we’re going to meet the moment. We’re going to get out there and we’re going to share information and we’re going to analyze it and we’re going to say this is what it has. There’s no ambiguity. The danger is very real. The data shows it unequivocally.”

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Tags: Drug Trafficking Opioid Crisis

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