DEA agents go after fentanyl suppliers with help from scientists

Chemists analyze illicit fentanyl down to its atoms to find out who makes it.

When agents at the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) need a chemist’s perspective on fentanyl, they turn to John Casale and Jennifer Mallette. The two scientists run the DEA’s fentanyl profiling program. All the fentanyl seized by the agency comes through their lab to be analyzed, profiled, and potentially linked to other cases. Since starting the project two years ago, the team has processed 1,800 samples of illicit fentanyl and made 59 connections between samples.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is particularly dangerous because of its potency—it’s up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine. Just two milligrams of pure fentanyl, as much as a few grains of table salt, is a deadly dose for most people. This is causing an unprecedented number of overdose deaths in the United States. To stem this tide, DEA agents need to know as much as possible about the fentanyl they seize.

Chemists’ expertise helps agents

The chemical profiles generated by the project reveal whether fentanyl brought into the lab is connected to any previous DEA cases. Casale and his team pass that information on to the responsible agents. “We’re basically just giving them a lead, and they look and figure out what the connection is,” said Casale. “The agents we’re doing these samples for are ecstatic about it.”

That’s because just knowing that two fentanyl seizures are related is often enough to move a DEA investigation forward. In one case, the lab connected the manufacturer of illicit fentanyl tablets, to a distributor, all the way down to tablets seized on the streets.  “It does make an impact,” said Casale, “and investigations are recognized based at least in part on the work that we do.”


Investigation of a suspected fentanyl crime scene. DEA

Fentanyl seized by the DEA is analyzed down to its atoms

The first thing the chemists do when a sample is brought to their lab is determine how much fentanyl is actually in it. Because fentanyl is so powerful, the samples are mostly made up of other compounds. Typically, fentanyl smuggled into the US across the Mexican border is five to seven percent fentanyl. “We do see direct shipments coming from China that are very high purity, but those are rare,” says Casale.

The analysis goes down to the atomic level—fentanyl’s isotopic signatures vary depending on the ingredients used to produce it. The team also examine what components other than fentanyl are in the sample and find traces of the solvents used in the manufacturing process.

One thing Casale can’t tell from the chemical signature alone is where the fentanyl he’s analyzing was produced. “People always ask if we can tell whether this fentanyl came from China or Mexico,” says Casale. “The answer is no.” Plant-based drugs like heroin and cocaine have signature molecules that reveal where the plants used to make them were grown. That doesn’t work with fentanyl, because it’s completely synthetic. The ingredients could come from anywhere.

But the group is working to expand the project and extract other useful information from the fentanyl they analyze. For example, they’re exploring a way to identify synthetic impurities associated with different production methods. This would tell investigators to be on the lookout for someone buying specific starting materials.

The DEA data may also have public health applications. “It shows what the samples look like, what people are using on the street,” Mallette explains. The scientists’ analysis can also provide information about where fentanyl is being seized, purity levels by state, and the various fentanyl analogues they’ve seen.

Other forensic scientists are taking notice

The impact of Casale and Mallette’s work reaches beyond the DEA. It’s being followed by forensic scientists at law enforcement agencies around the world, including Hong Kong, Germany, and Brazil. “Either for handling fentanyl and fentanyl derivates in case of seizures, or in aspects of analyzing them, I need as much information as possible,” said Thorsten Rößler, an analytical chemist at Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office who subscribes to the project’s updates on ResearchGate.

Benny Lum of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida also follows the DEA scientists’ progress. “We strongly believe in the work John's team is doing, because it gives us insight as to why the selection of different chemical compounds are used to dilute or add to the case samples. His resources are vast compared to our regional resources, and his findings aid us in keeping on top of trends,” he said.


For more information and updates, visit the team's project on ResearchGate.

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