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Maryland's Record Opioid Overdoses Linked to Mexico

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Sylvia Longmire IHSBy Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Many Americans have heard or read in the news about the nation’s opioid epidemic. However, not many understand exactly how it’s happening, the players involved and the extent of the damage.

The crisis is getting worse, as the deadly chemical fentanyl is being manufactured in China, funneled through Mexico and laced with heroin in the U.S. The state of Maryland is bearing the brunt of this fatal trend, seeing a rise of almost 600 percent in fentanyl deaths since 2014.

According to the Baltimore Sun, China produces much of the global supply of pharmaceutical ingredients. Chinese laboratories take advantage of cheap labor and lax oversight from Beijing to churn out new versions of fentanyl faster than U.S. authorities can identify, classify and ban them. From China, the drug is sent daily by plane or ship to Mexico, where traffickers and truckers smuggle it north to the United States. From there, street-level gangs and dealers pass the powdered and pill form to users.

US Having Trouble Keeping Up with Opioid Supply Chain Logistics

In a theme that has become all too familiar in the War on Drugs, U.S. authorities can’t keep up with the supply chain logistics. Authorities from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and even the Chinese government are involved in trying to stop the fentanyl flow. They know they’re intercepting increasing amounts of the synthetic drug, but they still don’t know how much is getting in, either to the U.S. or communities like Baltimore—Maryland’s overdose epicenter. Baltimore currently accounts for roughly one-third of Maryland overdose deaths.

For its part, the Government of Mexico is attempting to help. In May 2017, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson said in Mexico City that the Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risk “is finalizing revisions to the laws that will add these [fentanyl] precursors to the list of controlled substances in Mexico.” According to a Reuters report, the head of counter-narcotics at the U.S. State Department, William Brownfield, estimated earlier this year that more than 90 percent of the heroin currently consumed in the U.S. comes from Mexico, along with most of the fentanyl.

A New York Times report indicated that Mexican cartels are synthesizing fentanyl in their own labs, in addition to importing it from China. Jack Riley, acting deputy administrator of the DEA, said, “It is really the next migration of the cartels in terms of making profit.”

And the opportunities for making those profits are astronomical. According to DEA data, kilogram of heroin purchased from Colombia for roughly $6,000 can be sold wholesale in the U.S. for $80,000.

But one kilogram of pure fentanyl, purchased from China for less than $5,000, can be stretched into 16 to 24 kilograms by using cutting agents like talcum powder or caffeine. Each kilogram can then be sold wholesale for $80,000 — for a total profit of approximately $1.6 million.

Fentanyl Seizures Increasing in Volume

Back in Baltimore, local officials don’t know where the fentanyl is being used and distributed until the overdose calls start coming in. A spike in overdoses is considered to be three or more fatal or non-fatal overdoses in 24 hours.

Baltimore suffered 95 such spikes from August 2016 to August 2017, according to city health department figures. DEA teams that work in tandem with local law enforcement used to seize a couple of kilograms of fentanyl annually, reported the Sun. Now they seize 30 or 40 kilograms at a time. There is no indication that this trend will slow down soon, either in Mexican drug labs or Maryland communities.