BOSTON — A DANGEROUS drug called fentanyl, a form of synthetic heroin, is finding its way onto streets of major United States metropolitan areas, particularly cities in the Northeast.
The powerful drug, considered to be 80 to 100 times stronger than regular heroin, is known as "China White" or "Persian White." Drug dealers mix the drug in makeshift home laboratories and sell it as cheap heroin. When mixed improperly and injected, it can cause immediate death.
The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that 112 people in the Northeast have died from overdoses of the drug in the past year. In the Greater Boston area, DEA agents seized some 39 pounds of fentanyl within the last six months - the largest seizure ever in the US, says Jack Kelly, public-information officer of the agency's Boston division.
"Nothing is more threatening to the stability of families and neighborhoods than this new synthetic drug," Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn says.
Mr. Flynn is planning a citywide initiative through the city's drug education/awareness program, Boston Against Drugs, to warn of the drug's dangers. The program will hold presentations in each neighborhood. A video on heroin and fentanyl is also being planned.
City police are being trained to detect and handle the drug since it is so toxic. It is hard to detect since little is needed to bring the desired effect.
The first deadly fentanyl overdoses recorded in the US occurred in California in 1979, according to the DEA. More overdoses occurred in that state, Arizona, and Oregon in the early 1980s.
More recently, the drug has appeared in Northeastern cities. In February 1991, 17 people died and 200 people were hospitalized in the metropolitan New York area, Mr. Kelly says. From January to March 1992, 23 people in Baltimore died from using the drug. Law-enforcement officials there broke up a $6.5 million-a-week fentanyl operation, arrested 12 people, indicted 29, and seized one pound of liquid fentanyl citrate. Maryland Gov. William Schaefer (D) then launched a statewide effort to warn of the drug.
Fentanyl is considered a "designer drug" because it is made from standard chemicals. Drug dealers mix the drug because it does not need to be smuggled into the country, has a more powerful effect than heroin, and is cheaper. Sold as heroin, fentanyl costs about $10 to $15 a bag compared with regular heroin, which sells for $10 to $30 a bag, Kelly says.
Fentanyl is sold commercially as an anesthesia. Known as liquid fentanyl citrate, it was developed in the 1960s by Janssen Pharmaceutical Inc. of Belgium under the trade name "Sublimaze." Several hospitals and medical centers in Florida, Iowa, Texas, and Kentucky have reported thefts of it between 1990 and 1992, the DEA reports.
The DEA has made its fentanyl investigation a priority.
This month, federal investigators made two arrests and raided two Kansas laboratories allegedly producing fentanyl. Federal agents in northern Massachusetts, meanwhile, found a man shot dead who was suspected of being a major fentanyl distributor.
Mark Kleiman, a drug analyst at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, does not expect fentanyl use to spread significantly. For one thing, he says the DEA shut down two major distributing operations in Kansas. In addition, he says, the demand is not so great given the wide availability of pure heroin, particularly in the Northeast. "If fentanyl were a major national drug problem a few years from now, I would be extremely surprised," he says.
Others are more cautious as to whether the drug will spread. "We don't know enough about all of the distribution networks and organizations involved in the drug to say it's under control and there is not a problem," says Lt. Col. Thomas Carr, chief of the Maryland State Police Bureau of Drug Enforcement.
The danger is that drug users are not aware of what they are buying, specialists say. "The people who are mixing this drug ... are not chemists," says Howard Hughes, executive director of Boston Against Drugs.