From southern Ohio down to Alabama and increasingly up the Eastern Seaboard, drug users are dying by the scores in a strange new way: by overdosing on elephant tranquilizer.
The drug, called carfentanil, comes from labs in China—usually mailed to users who buy it online or shipped to cartels in Mexico who smuggle it across the southern border—and is 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Federal law enforcement officials across the eastern half of the country told The Daily Beast they have seen an alarming increase in the number of people dying by overdosing on this drug, and that they’re searching for the toughest prosecutorial strategies to try to stop the deaths.
The problem is metastasizing as Congress pushes for a health care overhaul many experts fear could make the opiate problem even worse. It’s an epidemic that killed more people than car accidents did in 2015, and has federal prosecutors increasingly looking to get offenders responsible for those deaths sentenced to decades in prison—a strategy some prosecutors hope could prevent deaths, but which isn’t without controversy.
The carfentanil deaths started last summer in Northeast Ohio. Though the opioid epidemic has torn through the United States for years, with heroin and prescription painkiller-linked deaths steadily climbing, it took dystopian twist in Akron in July. That’s where people first started overdosing on carfentanil, according to Russ Baer, a DEA special agent who follows the issue. Zoos use the drug to tranquilize elephants and rhinos, and Chinese labs manufacture it and ship it to the U.S. and Mexico, he said.
Some American users have it delivered directly in the mail, but law enforcement officials concurred that the bulk of it moves from Chinese manufacturers to Mexican cartel distributors, who ship it up into the United States, often cutting into shipments of heroin, cocaine, or fentanyl (another synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin) as a cheap way to make those drugs much stronger. Low-level distributors then sell those drugs to users, who are often unaware that a product they think is just cocaine or heroin includes a secret ingredient that makes it much more potent—and lethal.
Mike Tobin, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Northern District of Ohio, said users don’t seem to know what’s in the drugs they consume.
“What we’re seeing, anecdotally at least, is it’s amateur hour on the user side and it’s amateur hour on the dealer side,” he said. “We can’t prove it, but the sense is they’re selling whatever they get in the mail from China or that’s coming over the Southern border.”
“I can’t imagine that people would deliberately and willfully ingest carfentanil,” Baer said. “It is so outrageously dangerous.”
That hasn’t kept people from ingesting it, and dying by the dozens. It’s proven especially deadly in Ohio and Kentucky, states hit hard by the opioid epidemic. Benjamin Glassman, the U.S. attorney for Ohio’s Southern District, said his office has been charging low-level dealers with federal crimes that carry 20-year mandatory minimum sentences in hopes of deterring the sale of fentanyl and carfentanil. Those sentences only apply when dealers sell to users who then overdose.
Last September, Glassman’s office announced the indictment of two people for selling drugs containing carfentanil to users who then overdosed (though non-fatally). Since then, he said he has seen anecdotal evidence that some dealers in the district are more circumspect about synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil.
“The deterrent doesn’t last a long time,” he said. “But it will cause a reaction of what we’re seeing on the streets for a period of time.”
And Carlton Shier, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Kentucky, said his office has had the same experience—concluding that the threat of lengthy sentences for dealers whose customers overdosed could make them hesitant to sell those drugs.
“When we listen to jail calls, they’re talking about it,” he said. “They’re worried that they’re going to get hammered.”
He said his office has pursued upward of three dozen cases over the last two years charging dealers with lengthy sentences after their customers overdosed. He added that that’s a significant increase from years past, and that carfentanil prosecutions have contributed to the uptick. Trace amounts of the substance can be lethal, he added, and his office has found dealers with significant quantities of it.
“A single gram of this stuff could kill thousands, and we’re getting people with tens of grams,” he said. “It’s pretty awful stuff.”