This Is How Chinese Labs Are Sneaking the Dangerous Drug Fentanyl Into the US

AP

Across North America, fentanyl is killing people at an alarming rate. The opiate, far more potent and allegedly much cheaper than heroin, is already the root of a British Columbia state of emergency after a reported 200 fentanyl-related overdoses swept the province in the first three months of 2016.

Now a new version of fentanyl is already on the market — and because of a technicality, it's completely legal.

Fentanyl, like flakka and other synthetic street drugs, is slippery: When a country tries to block it, drug manufacturers can simply tweak the formula to sneak around legislation. It's like a Hydra: When you cut off one variant, another pops up in its place.

Source: Tom Gannam/AP
Source: Tom Gannam/AP

That's exactly what just happened. Chinese labs just rolled out furanyl fentanyl to sidestep an export ban on synthetic drugs China imposed last year. Since the chemical makeup of the drug is different from what got banned, furanyl fentanyl hasn't been banned yet.

The scary part about fentanyl is that, in most cases, people aren't trying to buy fentanyl at all. It's been reported as a cutting agent in heroin and, maybe worse, in pills like Xanax and Oxycontin — sedatives and painkillers popular among teens

In some cases, those counterfeit pills are coming from Dark Net markets, hidden websites that sell anything from guns to drugs. The problem is that you don't always know what you're getting online, especially when the drugs are chemically synthesized.

"Any street heroin dealer with access to the [Dark Net market] ... can now source fentanyl and raise profit margins at the cost of lives," AlpraKing, a Dark Net Xanax dealer who has been sent a fentanyl-contaminated batch of antidepressants in the past, told Mic via instant messenger. "Fentanyl itself is an issue," he said, but even worse are the untested chemicals that producers are using to bypass these bans — "they can be bought from any China factory for dirt cheap. And people in the street are selling fentanyl or its analogs as heroin."

Source: Teh Eng Koon/Getty Images
Source: Teh Eng Koon/Getty Images

This new version of fentanyl has already claimed a life. A 30-year-old man in Illinois overdosed and died in March. The Will County coroner's office identified furanyl fentanyl in his system, chalking it up as an accidental overdose.

Like in flakka's case, the Drug Enforcement Administration can't keep up with regulating constantly fluctuating versions of fentanyl: For the Chinese labs, changing the composition is about as easy as changing your cookie recipe from sugar to chocolate chip. China's already banned at least 116 analogs of fentanyl.

The trouble is, if the DEA and China regulate only the drugs they can identify, there will always be a new fentanyl — and the body count will keep rising.