T

he dozen packages were shipped from China to mail centers and residences in Southern California. One box was labeled as a “Hole Puncher.”

In fact, it was a quarter-ton pill press, which federal investigators allege was destined for a suburban Los Angeles drug lab. The other packages, shipped throughout January and February, contained materials for manufacturing fentanyl, an opioid so potent that in some forms it can be deadly if touched.

When it comes to the illegal sale of fentanyl, most of the attention has focused on Mexican cartels that are adding the drug to heroin smuggled into the United States. But Chinese suppliers are providing both raw fentanyl and the machinery necessary for the assembly-line production of the drug powering a terrifying and rapid rise of fatal overdoses across the United States and Canada, according to drug investigators and court documents.

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“We have seen an influx of fentanyl directly from China,” said Carole Rendon, the acting US attorney for the northern district of Ohio in Cleveland. “It’s being shipped by carrier. It’s hugely concerning because fentanyl is so incredibly deadly.”

The China connection is allowing local drug dealers in North America to mass produce fentanyl in pill form, in some cases producing tablets that look identical to an oft-abused version of the prescription painkiller OxyContin. It also has been added to Xanax pills. And last week, fentanyl pills made to resemble the painkiller hydrocodone were blamed for a wave of overdoses in the Sacramento area, including nine deaths.

The fentanyl pills are often disguised as other painkillers because those drugs fetch a higher price on the street, even though they are less potent, according to police.

The Southern California lab was just one of four dismantled by law enforcement in the United States and Canada in March.

Packaged fentanyl seized in Calgary, Alberta. Calgary Police Service

In British Columbia, police took down a lab at a custom car business that was allegedly shipping 100,000 fentanyl pills a month to nearby Calgary, Alberta where 90 people overdosed on the drug last year. The investigation began when border authorities intercepted a package in December containing pharmaceutical equipment. Police would not describe the equipment but told STAT it came from China.

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Federal agents shut down a Seattle lab set up in the bedroom of a home in a residential neighborhood. Similarly, investigators last week raided a suburban Syracuse, N.Y. residence that police charged was a “Fentanyl Processing Mill.” Investigators found six people inside the home mixing and packaging the drug and seized enough fentanyl to make 5,866 doses. As they entered the home, police reportedly were warned by the alleged dealers not to touch the fentanyl without gloves because of its potency.

The emergence of decentralized drug labs using materials obtained from China — and often ordered over the Internet — makes it more difficult to combat the illicit use of the drug.

“We had a spike in 2007” of fentanyl-related deaths, said Russell Baer, a spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. “We traced it to a single production lab in Mexico and the deaths went away. Now, it is not restricted to one site.”

Fentanyl is legally used to treat people with severe pain, often after surgery, but this prescription fentanyl is not the source of most of the illegal trade.

People who unknowingly take fentanyl — either in pill form or when cut into heroin — can easily overdose because it is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and many times that of heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It works quickly, and multiple doses of the antidote naloxone are often required to reverse an overdose.

US health and law enforcement officials began warning of a spike in fentanyl deaths last year, a trend that has continued into this year. Fentanyl has surpassed heroin as a killer in several locales. A recent report by the CDC identified 998 fatal fentanyl overdoses in Ohio in 2014 and the first five months of 2015. Last month, federal prosecutors in Cleveland charged a local man with selling blue pills that appeared to be 30 milligram doses of the milder painkiller oxycodone. When tested,  the 925 pills in his possession turned out to be fentanyl.

“One of the truly terrifying things is the pills are pressed and dyed to look like oxycodone,” said Rendon. “If you are using oxycodone and take fentanyl not knowing it is fentanyl, that is an overdose waiting to happen. Each of those pills is a potential overdose death.”

In Calgary, the fentanyl pills were produced to look similar to a version of OxyContin that was easily abused before it was replaced in 2012 by a tamper-resistant form, according to police. The pills are the same shade of green as OxyContin and are marked “80”, which was a frequently abused dosage of the drug. On the street, the fentanyl pills are called “shady 80s,” said Calgary Police Sergeant. Martin Schiavetta. They are sold for about $20 a pill, and some addicts take 15 to 20 pills a day.

“We have tracked the import from China,” Schiavetta said of fentanyl sold in the Canadian city. “The dealers ask for fentanyl powder and there are websites that guarantee delivery. If it is stopped at the border, they will send you a new one.” He said the packages are labeled as different products, such as car parts.

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In Edmonton, Alberta, police inspector Dwayne Lakusta said fentanyl and pill presses are coming from China. “It is getting worse,” he said of that city’s fentanyl problem. “We will be battling this every day moving forward.”

Federal agents in Southern California became aware of the fentanyl operation there when a US Customs and Border Protection agent discovered a commercial pill press being sent from China to Gary Resnik, a Long Beach, Calif., man who has since been charged in the drug ring along with three other men.

Resnik allegedly set up a company called “Beyond Your Dreams” to order the machine, which was shipped through Los Angeles International Airport by a Chinese company called Capsulcn International, according to court records. Those records allege the Chinese company has a history of shipping pill presses to customers in the United States using fake shipping labels. Attempts to identify a specific location of the company and contact information were unsuccessful.

Pill press seized in British Columbia in March. RCMP

Federal agents eventually seized six pill presses they allege were used by the Southern California dealers. Each machine could produce thousands of pills an hour.

The dealers allegedly operated one lab out of a single-story home they rented in Baldwin Park, Calif. Investigators believe none of the men arrested actually lived there. DEA agents and technicians wearing bright-yellow hazardous material suits shut down the lab on March 15.

A storage unit was rented to house supplies and equipment. Agents also discovered handwritten notes listing ingredients and mixtures necessary to manufacture the fentanyl pills, according to court records.

The drug allegedly sold by the Los Angeles dealers was a fentanyl analog, called acetyl fentanyl, which has a slightly different chemical composition. Federal investigators have identified a dozen analogs of fentanyl produced in clandestine labs, all of which act similarly in the body to heroin, with the exception of being more potent.

China last year made it illegal to export acetyl fentanyl, a move that drew praise from US officials. However, several police agencies in North America say the drug continues to stream out of the country.

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A report this month from the Department of State’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs found China remains a major producer and exporter of drugs like fentanyl for illicit international markets. The country’s vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries — combined with lax regulation, low production costs, and government corruption — make China an “ideal source” for the export of materials needed in illicit drug production, according to the report.

In an affidavit, DEA agent Lindsey Bellomy said that based on wire transfers and other evidence, she “strongly believes” the Southern California group acquired its fentanyl from China. The affidavit lists a dozen deliveries from China to members of the group in January and February.

When police stopped one customer after he allegedly purchased fentanyl from the group, he was found to have “several thousand pills” later determined to be acetyl fentanyl by lab technicians. The customer told police he purchased drugs from the group every couple of days, and that he, in turn, sold his buyers a minimum of 1,000 pills, a quantity known as “a boat.”

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  • It is more complex problem that it seems on the surface of it. Many people suffering from severe chronic pain, finding it increasingly difficult to have the pain managed by a legitimate venue, reach for illegal street drugs with unknown dose being used. There is a portion of depressed population, those who found an easy way out, hanging is not acceptable for great majority of those people.
    Lasly but most importantly in Switzerland there is a government program supplying drug addicts with a drug of choice, frequency and dose of their choice. There is hardly any deaths from overdose there, and in fact the number of addicts there is steadily decreasing.

  • This is not an issue, we the people, are sick of paying unaffordable health insurance and provider costs to cover drug ADDICTS who make the CHOICE to use ILLEGAL drugs. Let the addicts die, when the criminal addict population shrinks due to overdose deaths and the demand for illegal drugs decreases. Addicts and the families of addicts should have to pay all addict related expenses out of pocket. The rest of America should NOT be penalized by skyrocketing health insurance and care costs, nor should we have to wait for months to see providers because they are stuck dealing with addicts!!!

    • Tell it how it is. Way to go Sharon. I called my provider to schedule an appointment. I had to wait a month. So It went to urgent care. Im waiting in line when an Chest-pain and two cancers bypass me in line. Why do the Cancers prolong what is clearly inevitable?

    • Sharon, unfortunately it seems you have an extreme lack of education on the disease of addiction. Addiction is a disease. No one chooses to be an addict. It’s best described as an allergy to a substance. A person usually starts taking medication prescribed by a doctor for pain and because of their “allergy” their brain keeps telling them they need more and more of that medication. I’m sure at one point or another in your life or someone in your family’s life had to take a narcotic pain medication such as Vicodin, oxy codone, etc. I sincerely hope addiction does not ever come into your life or anyone in your family as it is devistating. Please have some compassion and do some research and learn about the disease of addiction.
      On another note… addicts very rarely go to doctors to get their drugs…. fortunately there has been a program called PMP, prescription monitoring program that prevents people from going to multiple doctors for prescriptions, and filling prescriptions for the same medication from different doctors and before they are actually due to be filled.
      As for the people running the pill mills and dealers like Resnick who are ordering pill presses from China to manufacture drugs here and sell them, let them die- they are contributing to the addicts disease. Being they KNOW China is a major producer and exporter of illegal fentanyl coming into our country STOP allowing shipments from them period. Wether it’s clothing, or toys or whatever get it from somewhere in the US.

  • I’m a firm believer that this is all caused by big pharma and the main reason it’s being brought to front of the news is big pharma doesn’t like competition from nobody.
    People that suffer severe pain need these meds so I don’t think every one should be punished. There’s quite a few drugs from a pharmacy that cause severe addiction and serious health problems mainly the benzos that should be more tightly regulated without a doubt.
    They were only intended to be taken no more than four weeks max but Dr’s put people on these for years or decades. Time to tear apart the fda and throw them in jail while actually creating an agency that looks after people’s health instead of business profits.
    Pathetic

    • So agreed Rod, if they would let the Drs do their job there wouldn’t be such a big demand for illegal drugs that kills so many people the DEA and CDC need to let our Drs do their job instead of letting people who suffer have to seek for this junk..If trump wanted to make the US great again he would Fire the CDC and the DEA and start over so these people making huge amounts of $$ and could care less who is dying? Let our Drs do their job, not the drug dealers its easy when you think! More heroin and other drug dealers are selling this junk than Drs are prescribing to people who need it. ? Look at Maine, for instance, they want to cut everyone to 100 mgs, per day.? That’s crazy I have been on average 150 for 20 years with 0 problems but now everyone will probably seek this junk.?

  • For the doctor’s response, after some botched surgeries I ended up on pain meds. A surgery to repair those mistakes made things worse. Meditation, counseling, acupuncture, exercise, yoga does not make the pain caused by the damage of that last surgery go away. It helps to a degree with stress. But opioids do help manage my pain so I am able to work, do ADLs. I’m I ever pain fre, no. But it’s better than laying in bed all day. Fifteen years later, I’m still not an addict. And my doses don’t get raised, my medication gets changed. There are successful stories of people who can take opioids, do all those things I mentioned and lead a halfway decent life. Opioids didn’t hurt my health ever, just incompetent physicians.

  • When the CDC, DEA along with State & Federal entities elected ” Prohibition ” of Legal pain medicine they have made it nearly impossible for REAL PAIN PATIENTS to get the pain medication they have been taking for years. Suddenly patients are taken off their pain meds leaving them with no recourse. The pain community told the CDC that prohibition would only lead to the increase of Black market-deadly drugs like the Fentanyl from China. So far all they have done ( DEA CDC FDA ) is make the Opiate problem worse resulting in more deaths. This is just the beginning of what will become the worst drug problem our country has ever seen. They didn’t listen to experts perhaps now they will – I pray they will. I’m a Chronic Pain Patient that was taken off all my pain medication and I’m scared to death of the pain yet to come. I will not buy street drugs but many in my shoes will. All of this could have been avoided- what a shame – a crime is what it is

    Thank yoh

    • I agree 100% with you, my brother has been on pain medication for 25 years and never been in trouble in his life, and now they are making it very difficult for him to continue his meds, having to jump through hoops… He has neuropathy in his feet…. So sad…

    • I agree also, the drug epidemic got much worse after the doctors had been told what and how much they could prescribe. There needs to be regulations to keep everyone in check but to have people who are not medical professionals telling the actual medical professionals how they can prescribe seems crazy to me. Every person is different and everyone has different pain tolerance but i feel there could have been an alternative method put in place rather than having doctors in so much fear of losing their licenses because of their prescribing practices that they cut patients off all together. They could have a pansy of doctors when one doctor is accused of overprescribing or whatever have other doctors or retired doctors review the case and see what they feel is necessary. Cutting someone off all together causes most people to withdraw and then look elsewhere, on the streets and illegally for their medication

  • A kilo of fentanyl for 3 or 4 grand, returns 1.5 million dollars. Legalize all illicit drugs. Take the profit from criminals and not only would the number of addicts drop, but also would all the crime and social and family destruction. Use all the money spent on the DEA and other drug enforcement agencies to provide addiction treatment or addict zones where the addicts can have their own community. Opiod recidivism from two thousand dollar a day rehab facilities is 90%. Such an expense for little return is only profiting the providers. Let the addicts live their alternative lifestyle like those in Holland. Only 1% are addicts,and the govt. takes care if them with the love and concern that used to be shown to lepers. In the US, everything about drugs is for profit. The addicts, drunk drivers, are money making commodities as are most other Americans. The root of all evil is the love of money and that is what America is all about. The govt. and powers that be hate most of the population, so my solution to the drug problem is impossible.

    • Quite eloquently and accurately stated Rex Zark! I want to cut and paste this on my FB page! We have had 53 OD’s in a 24 hour period in Louisville Ky a few days ago. History, research, and basic premises of addiction all bear out what you are saying to be true! Thx for such thoughtful post! Peace

  • We in USA will have to focus on rehabbing addicts and users – for free
    Adopting policies which other countries have successfully adopted. Strangling supplies, is death to addicts without proper governmental intervention
    They have no resources to pay for expensive counseling , methadone and bupronorphine treatments

  • What does our government excpect?They’re taking EFFECTIVE pain relief from legit people. It is NOT chronic pain patients overdosing, abusing or even diverting! IF some patients are diverting it’s a VERY SMALL percentage which does NOT justify taking meds away from everyone. This BS of opioids not being effective for chronic long term intractable pain is total C**P! It lack logic. However, I do believe there is a percentage of people for which hyperalagesia is very real. But, even then I am certain that there IS probably a lower dose that is still Very Effective for them! I also believe that there is no way that this evidence of ubiquitous hyperalagesia is conclusive or beyond reproach! I myself had been on a super large dose and yes, there came a point where it was not working as well. But when my dose was backed down and stabilized the opioid became VERY EFFECTIVE again! Also, I had a doctor who would switch my medications every six months to prevent tolerance! This approach was extremely effective!! Has the government done any studies about such an approach? I doubt it. So, not only are they taking our meds away but they are also taking away medical help for those who are actually dealing with addiction! Crazy! Limiting addiction medications to two years! Addicts need their meds for twice as long as they used! NOT two years! Talk about culling the herd! This whole thing IS crazy! I am NOT an addict. I am in chronic pain. Opioids help me to live. When I was given rough I was running my own house painting business, going to college full time, whitewater rafting, camping, hiking, fishing, I went to the movies with friends, had relationships, took care of my home and felt HAPPY & ALIVE! Now, the only way I get any rest is by hoping I will DIE in my sleep. I have one friend left. I lost contact with everyone. Lost my business. Never saw my mom alive again after not seeing her for three years because I never felt well enough to work to buy a plane ticket. It takes three days to get up the energy to shower. I rarely get to really clean my home and, for someone with OCD it’s NOT fun! So, maybe this will be my only option? I refuse to continue living this way. It is a Slippery Slope. Everyone who lives without chronic pain could care less. It is like expecting non-smokers to care about cigarette taxes. Huh? Well, just wait until you’re in pain! Then, you will know. God save us all. They’re taking our rights away one by one under the guise that it’s for the greater good or, our own good. Btw – there is NO greater good. Only good. And ripping pain relief that IS effective from suffering people is not even remotely close to good!

    • Sorry about the typos.
      I meant the following:
      1. *Lacks not Lack.
      2. When I was given *Enough.
      3. I am currently receiving about a quarter of the medication I need and soon More will be taken away from me. And as I understand it by 07/18 no one with chronic pain will receive any opioids at all. The fear is overwhelming. If I were a tin foil hatter I’d believe the government is in cahoots with the heroin traffickers! Three people in a support group I belong to have committed suicide already! So, please, if you’re reading this write letters to your government officials. Tell them to stay out of your/our doctor’s offices! First pain meds and then what? Your high blood pressure meds? Antidepressants? Birth control? The food we eat? Again, this IS a slippery slope of civil liberties and so much more. Even if chronic pain doesn’t currently effect your life… stand up! Be counted! Be a part of preventing out government from telling us what medications our doctors can and cannot prescribe, to whom and how much. Don’t be complacent. Please, don’t bury your head in the sand and think this is not your problem. Because sooner or later … the principles behind this objective are going to creep into your life and knock you on your buttocks. Give them an inch and eventually they’ll take a mile. Like a thief in the night. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Read the writing on the wall. Godspeed.

    • Sorry about the typos.
      I meant the following:
      1. *Lacks not Lack.
      2. When I was given *Enough.

      3. I am currently receiving about a quarter of the medication I need and soon More will be taken away from me. And as I understand it by 07/18 no one with chronic pain will receive any opioids at all. The fear is overwhelming. If I were a tin foil hatter I’d believe the government is in cahoots with the heroin traffickers! Three people in a support group I belong to have committed suicide already! So, please, if you’re reading this write letters to your government officials. Tell them to stay out of your/our doctor’s offices! First pain meds and then what? Your high blood pressure meds? Antidepressants? Birth control? The food we eat? Again, this IS a slippery slope of civil liberties and so much more. Even if chronic pain doesn’t currently effect your life… stand up! Be counted! Be a part of preventing out government from telling us what medications our doctors can and cannot prescribe, to whom and how much. Don’t be complacent. Please, don’t bury your head in the sand and think this is not your problem. Because sooner or later … the principles behind this objective are going to creep into your life and knock you on your buttocks. Give them an inch and eventually they’ll take a mile. Like a thief in the night. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Read the writing on the wall. Godspeed.

    • Being a physician, I understand Feds and state agencies decision to curb docs from giving meds – it was over prescribed, overly marketed by pharmaceutical industries
      Pain is real affects lives and functioning
      Medicine is not the answer- which was first line of treatment
      No matter how strong of pain meds one takes, pain never goes away completly – doctors have to understand and make patients understand that
      Pain is only manageable-
      Sad part is pain meds only work partially and mostly for a period unless they are pushed higher and higher to addiction
      Answer is mulitfaceted treatment, judicious and as needed use of Opiates with education. Good history taking is important – past addicts and anxiety ridden patients will usually get addicted faster

    • your story is exactly like mine, all the same things happened to me, including the way i feel now, just like you, pain meds did this to me. i would have rathe dealt with the pain then, then to have ruined my life like this. I’m basically just alive wasting oxygen all because doctors made it so easy for me to get pain meds. at the time i started taking them nobody knew how devastating these things were, but they did and they still prescribed them. and another thing they definitely don’t work for pain after a certain amount of time, it takes dangerously high doses to work as a pain killer (no doctor will administer high doses like that) so your out of luck when you need pain meds for real. it should be regulated

    • Carrah,
      Try suboxone for your current pain and drug addiction which you are in denial about. Pain patients, virtually all of them are physically dependent to their opiate, and some (Id say many) were addicts from the beginning

    • AN impassioned yet logical response which identifies the true target of this propaganda campaign. I challenge this reporter, paper and any so-called “treatment” expert to a real, unbiased discussion or a simple debate where more than bureaucrats, Big Pharma, govt agencies collaborate to spread fake news with no opposing viewpoint, even strawman arguments missing. Embarrassing – if not me, this commenter. There’s nothing new aside from the name of the scapegoat, easily marginalized & silenced sufferers too focused on survival & maintaining access to the only therapy that works and also keeps them off the antidepressant poisons. I’m @MicMorose. Bring whoever you want. I recognize propaganda in the service of greed, manufactured Hegelian prob/reaction/solution and more anytime, and what scares me is none of you fake news puppet readers even tries to hide it anymore..,years of brainwashing education and hypernormalization allow you to be more brazen, but you jump the gun – we won’t be silenced. Try it. I’ll give you $5,000 if the readers find you pro agent liars more credible than amateur truth tellers.,,let’s hear from ya. Gr8 response here. Amen. Peace, MM of Kroakers

    • Careah , I was reading your comments you made sense my friend and trust me I can’t feel what you’re feeling right now. But I can understand the pain cause I had chronic pain; I couldn’t sleep at all until I gave my life to Christ, and trust me on that I am looking for the pain and it was nowhere to be found I was totally healed. Give the Lord Jesus Christ a try by giving your life to Him. Just pray that simple prayer of faith and repentance. He will come to your life and make you whole. Blessings on you.

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