OMAHA, Neb. – The opioid carfentanil, a designer and dangerous drug similar to fentanyl but more powerful, is considered to be the most dangerous drugs detected, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
And its popularity keeps growing, even though the drug is lethal in tiny dosages -- sometimes even to the touch.
In 2016, there were more than 420 deaths associated with carfentanil. In 2017, that number more than doubled, to 815, according to the latest figures from the CDC.
Law enforcement officials are concerned that as its popularity grows, so will the death toll.
“It’s a dangerous drug. You’re playing a dangerous game with your body and your life,” said Darin Thimmesch, special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Designed in 1974, carfentanil was created exclusively for veterinary use to sedate large animals, including elephants and giraffes. Most recently, carfentanil is being used to increase the potency of the other drugs, such as in order heroin or cocaine. It can be available in powder, tablet or liquid form.
“They’re very potent opioids,” said Dr. Kenneth Zoucha with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than morphine.”
As the most potent fentanyl detected in the United States, carfentanil can be lethal at just two milligrams
Thimmesch said the manmade opioid, imported into the United States clandestinely through labs in China or Mexico, are sometimes easily purchased via the dark web. Users either get them through the mail or through Mexico-based drug traffickers that have established routes into the United States.
It's become a particular problem in Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, West Virginia, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Maine and Massachusetts, according to the CDC.
In Omaha, a spike in overdose deaths attributed to carfentanil sparked a five-month investigation that led police to an illegal drug lab.
Inside, they found a colorful mix of drugs containing carfentanil that’s lethal on touch.
“The potency of the carfentanil that was being used in this street drug becomes much more deadly than methamphetamine or cocaine,” said Sgt. Dave Bianchi with the Omaha Police Department
Bianchi, who works undercover, said carfentanil is so powerful that naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses, may not be effective.
The people behind the drug in Omaha, Peter Hechtman and his wife, Wendy, are both serving 15 years behind bars for possession with the intent to distribute.
Chris Perna, also an undercover officer with Omaha’s police department said stopping the Hechtmans has put a stop to devastating more families throughout the Midwest.
“We’re happy we were able to stop it,” he said. “They had plans to move out of the country to expand this drug that’s really not anywhere else.”
Drug enforcement agency officials in Omaha said they there are working with their divisions in other cities, including Chicago and Saint Louis to monitor where these drugs are coming from and who they are being distributed to.