The front line of the campaign against the dangerous opioid fentanyl can be found in a cavernous hangar at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport patrolled by drug-sniffing dogs and sharp-eyed X-ray machine operators. Their job is to determine which of the tens of millions of parcels that pass through each year contain the powerful synthetic drugs blamed for a soaring rate of fatal overdoses, the Chicago Tribune reports. “After a while, you’re able to identify which packages are most interesting,” said Francis Byrne of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Though officers frequently intercept fentanyl, plenty gets through. The drug is a fixture in Chicago’s narcotics trade, pressed into phony prescription pills or mixed into heroin. Last year, synthetics contributed to 57 percent of Cook County’s fatal opioid overdoses.
A U.S. Senate report this year found that fentanyl can be easily purchased online from overseas pharmaceutical companies, particularly those based in China. The ever-increasing volume of mail and the incredible potency of synthetic opioids — a mere kilogram can be turned into hundreds of thousands of individual doses — make some experts skeptical that the surge can ever be contained. “The biggest indictment of that entire system (of drug interdiction) is that our streets are more awash in black market drugs than ever, and we’re spending much more effort and time than ever trying to stop it,” said Prof. Leo Beletsky of Northeastern University. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that a kilo of fentanyl bought for $3,000 to $5,000 can generate $1.5 million in revenue. Some believe detection will become increasingly difficult as chemists devise powerful opioids that can be profitably smuggled in ever tinier quantities. Mark Kleiman of New York University’s Marron Institute predicts that synthetics will become so strong that producers will transport them in envelopes, not parcels, perhaps soaking the drugs into paper to make them even harder to find.