cool facts about marco polo quest to identify mystery drugs
WASHINGTON No one knew what was in the baggie. It was just a few tablespoons of crystalline powder seized back in April, clumped like snow that had partially melted and frozen again.
Emily Dye, a 27 year old forensic chemist at the Drug Enforcement Administration Special Testing and Research Laboratory, did not know if anyone had died from taking this powder, or how much it would take to kill you.
What she did know was this: New drugs were appearing in the lab every other week, things never before seen in this unmarked grey building in Sterling, Virginia. Increasingly, these new compounds were synthetic opioids designed to mimic fentanyl, a prescription painkiller up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
This, Dye realized, could be one of them.
The proliferation of rapidly evolving synthetic opioids has become so fierce that the DEA says they now constitute an entire new class of drugs, which are fueling the deadliest addiction crisis the United States has ever seen. officials say an assertion Beijing maintains has not been substantiated. Laws cannot keep pace with the speed of scientific innovation. doorsteps guaranteed.
More Americans now die of drug overdoses than in car crashes. Almost two thirds of them, more than 33,000 in 2015 alone, took some form of opioid either heroin, prescription painkillers or, increasingly, synthetic compounds like U 47700 and furanyl fentanyl, manufactured by nimble chemists to stay one step ahead of the law.
It is now forensic chemists like Dye who are on the front line of the nation war on drugs, teasing out molecular structures of mystery drugs so they can be named, tracked and regulated.
Dye held the baggie of powder in her gloved hand.
she said. got to figure out what this is. NEW CLASS OF DEADLY DRUGS
Dye had an idea where to start. The sample came in tagged as suspected fentanyl. Dye picked up a vial with 2 milligrams of fentanyl from her long, clean lab bench. The container looked empty. Up close, squinting, she could see a spray of white dust clinging to its sides. The contents of that vial will kill 99 per cent of the people who take it.
Dye first handled fentanyl three years ago. If she breathed it or touched it, she could die. It was nerve wracking then and still is.
The vial was made of glass. Dye had drop tested it and knew that if it rolled off and hit the hard floor, it would not shatter. She rapped the vial against the benchtop, trying to make the powder inside more visible. Bang, bang, bang. It was still invisible.
nothing more terrifying than dealing with a lethal dose of material, she said. Her hands were steady. Dye won modeling competitions for poise while she was at Graham High School in Bluefield, Virginia, a town of some 5,000 people on the eastern edge of Appalachian coal country.
Dye mother is a nurse who also deals with hazardous material. Mother and daughter both know that risk is not something to worry about, it something to manage. Dye has recommitted to every safety protocol she was ever taught. One, safety glasses. Two, lab coat, buttoned. Three, powder free disposable nitrile gloves. Four, face mask. She placed an emergency naloxone injection kit an antidote for opioid overdose near her workspace. Just in case. And, on samples like this, she never works alone.
The Special Testing Laboratory is one of eight forensic chemistry labs the DEA runs. Focused on research, it has a worn functionality that gives it an academic feel. Down echoing hallways are labs packed with fume hoods and high tech machines sprouting tubes and wires. Beakers dry by the sinks. First signs have been taped to the doors. Mostly, it is silent.
Forty chemists work here. Their job is to identify substances seized by law enforcement in the field before they kill or kill again. One of the compounds they identified is carfentanil, which is so potent it was used as a chemical weapon before it hit the North American drug supply over the summer.
now we seeing the emergence of a new class that fentanyl type opioids, Dye boss, Jill Head, explained. on the structure, there can be many, many more substitutions on that molecule that we have not yet seen. chemists have been creating designer alternatives to cannabis, amphetamine, cocaine and Ecstasy for years. But this new class of synthetics is far more lethal. Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, chemists chucked them in the category. Today those substances are one of the fastest growing groups of illicit chemicals tracked by the agency. They deserve their own category, he added, but that will take time.
Once, forensic chemists like Dye confronted a familiar universe of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin. Drug dealers, users and DEA agents generally knew what substance they were handling.
Today, things are different. This is a golden age of chemical discovery and subterfuge. Dealers may not know that the high purity heroin from Mexico they selling has been laced with fentanyl. Users may not realize the robin oxycodone tablets they taking are spiked with acetylfentanyl.
If field agents bust a clandestine drug lab and see a cloud of white powder in the air, they no longer assume it cocaine. They run.
I come on board at a time when everything was cocaine and heroin and meth and marijuana, it not an exciting day, Dye said. I come to work and see something that never been seen. it can kill somebody, she added.
Dye was just 6 years old when Purdue unveiled OxyContin as a breakthrough drug, a powerful yet supposedly nonaddictive opioid that would revolutionize pain management.
Instead, aggressive marketing and unscrupulous doctors helped push a generation of people into addiction.
Dye saw them all around her in Bluefield. Her dad pharmacy was her window on the crisis.
used to break into his store and steal Oxys, Dye said. became friends with a lot of cops. She did, too.