How the DEA is fighting street drugs killing Americans at a record rate

Deadly drugs are being sold on the streets and killing Americans at a record rate-- some laced with fentanyl -- in a nationwide epidemic.

"It's definitely killing people," Melanie Domagala, DEA Chicago Lab Director said. "And it's coming pretty much straight from cartels."

Synthetic opioid overdoses are continuing to increase, and illicitly made fentanyl is sharply rising.

"We get it in all shapes, sizes, and forms," Domagala said.


The Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago lab is working non-stop as different kinds of drugs continue to come in, confiscated in the Midwest. The most common type of drug coming in here: meth, making up about 28 percent of these chemists' workload.

"Mostly seeing high purity methamphetamine come through," said forensic chemist Louis Chavez. "It's usually upwards of 97 percent."

Never knowing what they're getting, these scientists are forced to wear protective gear. Domagala says cocaine makes up about 25 percent of the drugs they're analyzing and heroin, 12 percent.

"This is black tar heroin. It's hard, it's chunky. Then we have a more compressed form of heroin," said forensic chemist Paul Stuckey.

These impressions are helping to connect cases across the U.S.

"We have a bull - the outline, the silhouette of a bull," he said. "And then a Bugatti, which is a very fast sports car."

But fentanyl, a cheaper, synthetic opioid pain reliever, that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine is making up more of their workload than ever before: 11 percent.

"About 6 years ago, we didn't have fentanyl and now we have fentanyl as a regular type of drug," Domagala said.

Fentanyl is now being mixed more often with heroin and even oxycodone and Adderall in counterfeit pills. Senior forensic chemist Sarah Norris says of the heroin coming in that she analyzes, at least half is mixed with fentanyl. She says it's uncommon not to find it.
"It's really been ramping up the last few years," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone climbed 47 percent from 2016 to 2017, roughly 47,000 people dying last year alone.

"Imagine if you take a 747 plane and fill it with people and put it in the ground every day. That's how many people we're losing to drug overdose deaths every day," said Brian McNeal with the Detroit field division of the DEA.

And seizures of fentanyl are continuing to rise. The DEA reports 27 percent of the tablets seized in the U.S. from January to March, contained deadly doses of fentanyl -- 40 pounds of fentanyl was found in Toledo just weeks ago.

"It was enough to kill the entire population of Ohio two or three times over," McNeal said.

Counterfeit pills are especially dangerous as they look just like meds you'd get from your pharmacist.

"There's no quality control on the streets, they sell this to individuals, they don't know what they're buying, and it can kill you,"