Appetite for Lethal Narcotic Grows Across the U.S.

October 26, 2017

Michelle MacLeod died in a tough part of town known as the Tree Streets, where many of the streets have names like Ash, Palm, Chestnut and Walnut. Kevin Manchester, who provided the fentanyl that killed her, lived on Pine.

After MacLeod’s death, Nashua police wired her fiance and recorded him telling Manchester that MacLeod had overdosed and died. Manchester kept selling the powerful synthetic narcotic anyway.

Manchester, 27, went to prison for selling drugs that proved lethal — a “death-resulting” charge that prosecutors are using more frequently as they battle the opioid epidemic.

“He had no pause from what he had done, knowing full well he had killed that girl,” said Jon DeLena, the assistant special agent in charge in New Hampshire for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “It didn’t slow him down at all.”

The DEA points to the Manchester case as a victory, but it also highlights the challenges for law enforcement agencies as they seek to curb the spread of fentanyl. Manchester, a small-time dealer who was using his own product, was part of a wave of addiction that has worsened as the drugs have evolved, with fentanyl posing special problems because it is extremely potent, easily transported and highly desired.

As President Trump prepares to declare the opioid epidemic a national crisis, the law enforcement community is racing to contain the spread of fentanyl, which has largely replaced heroin on the streets here in opioid-ravaged New England and is increasingly the cause of fatal overdoses nationwide.

On the streets of Philadelphia, fentanyl leaves a deadly trail

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid about 50 times stronger than heroin, has ravaged communities across the nation. In this Washington Post original documentary, reporter Wesley Lowery travels to one of the hardest hit cities, Philadelphia, where he finds that despite efforts to deal with the crisis, it’s only getting worse. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Reem Akkad/Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

For dealers, a ripe market

The drug crisis is both a law enforcement issue and a public health emergency, a decentralized disaster that authorities under­stand they cannot solve with handcuffs and prison bars alone. Because the drug abusers often are themselves the dealers, the localized drug networks turn police work into a game of whack-a-mole.

Much of the fentanyl that winds up in New England is manufactured in Mexico using precursor materials obtained from China, the DEA says. It is then smuggled into the United States.

Some of the illicit fentanyl arrives via the mail. Last week the Justice Department announced charges against two Chinese nationals who sold fentanyl to Americans via the Internet.

The opioid crisis here didn’t pop up overnight. Residents of the region have always been heavy users of prescription opioid painkillers, DeLena said. The drug cartels realized that this was a ripe market for heroin.

“It was garbage heroin: It was 17, 18 percent purity,” DeLena said, noting that about two years ago drug dealers began mixing fentanyl into the heroin supply to boost its purity and potency. “They started telling people they had a new, cleaner version of heroin. China White, they were calling it.”

Legally manufactured for medical use, fentanyl can be a godsend for patients in extreme pain, including people at the end of life. But illicit fentanyl is boosting profit margins on the streets. The synthetic opioid is attractive to dealers because, unlike heroin derived from the poppy plant, it’s not subject to the vagaries of agriculture.

Fentanyl generally comes in a white or off-white powder that can be mixed with other powdered drugs — not just heroin but also cocaine or methamphetamine. Some street-level dealers probably didn’t know they were selling drugs laced with fentanyl, authorities say, which has contributed to overdose deaths, including among cocaine users.

But others do know the fentanyl is in the mix, and their addicted customers want the most powerful product even if it’s potentially deadly. To some addicts, a near-death experience is not an error. It’s the dream.

The law-enforcement­ strategy against drug trafficking is traditionally to go up the ladder from street dealers, caught in the act, to their bosses and ultimately to kingpins.

The fentanyl and heroin in this part of New England often is funneled through Lawrence, Mass., via drug traffickers with ties to the Dominican Republic, according to the DEA and police in Lawrence and Nashua. A major drug raid in May in Lawrence resulted in 34 arrests on drug, gun and immigration charges.

Profits from Lawrence are typically diverted to the Dominican Republic, according to the DEA. Michael Ferguson, special agent in charge for the DEA in Boston, said the agency is working with Dominican authorities to seize property there that has been obtained with drug money.

The old mill town now has what officials call “milling operations,” and they’re not making textiles as they did many decades ago. A milling operation is typically a rental apartment with as many as 30 blenders. The blenders are used to mix fentanyl with inert fillers or perhaps heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine.

The fentanyl often is unevenly distributed in bags when it’s sold. That can explain why some people die from overdoses while others survive. As DeLena puts it, describing a situation very much like what happened to Michelle Mac-Leod, “She got the bad corner.”

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