Some dealers turn to synthetic opioids more potent than fentanyl


Synthetic opioids estimated to be 10 times more potent than fentanyl are turning up in the illicit drug supply in the U.S., but DEA officials don’t believe Mexican cartels are responsible for the latest deadly drug threat.

DEA officials suspect mid-level and street-level dealers are mixing synthetic opioids called nitazenes with other drugs, possibly to make the drugs more powerful.

“When combined with fentanyl, the effects of both drugs are heightened, which significantly increases the chance of fatal drug poisoning,” according to the DEA’s most recent National Drug Threat Assessment, which was released last week.

Nitazenes, which have never been approved for medical use, were developed in the 1950s as opioid analgesics, but were never approved to market, according to a study published last summer. That paper notes that “a characteristic of nitazenes is their high potency (e.g., hundreds to thousands fold more potent than morphine and other opioids and tenfold more potent than fentanyl).”

Nitazenes include metonitazene, etonitazene, isotonitazene, and protonitazene. All are listed under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, meaning the federal government considers them to be illegal drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

“The mixtures are probably being made mainly by mid-level and street-level dealers in the United States,” according to the DEA report.

The case of an accused Florida drug dealer illustrates how nitazenes enter the U.S. illicit drug supply. In that case, the Florida man was mixing nitazenes with fentanyl. The unnamed dealer sold fentanyl in “distribution quantity amounts” to other drug traffickers in South Florida, according to the federal indictment. The dealer used Bitcoin to buy six kilograms of metonitazene and nine kilograms of protonitazene from the company based in Jiangsu, China, to make his supply more valuable.

The dealer was looking for chemicals to mix with fentanyl and heroin “to increase his supply of opioids and to enhance their effects on consumers,” according to the indictment. The Chinese company has since become a target of U.S. sanctions from the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

“[The dealer] mixed several different opioids and pressed them together,” according to the indictment. “The resulting mixture was a powerful and dangerous combination of protonitazene, metonitazene, fentanyl, fluorofentanyl, and heroin.”

DEA officials are wary of Mexican cartels getting involved with nitazenes.

“Since nitazenes are sold by China-based chemical suppliers through online marketplaces, the Mexican cartels could easily use their existing relationships with those suppliers to obtain nitazenes,” according to the DEA report. “To date, however, Mexican authorities have not seized nitazene or nitazene-fentanyl mixtures in Mexico.”

About 12% of the nitazene exhibits analyzed by DEA forensic laboratories came from Southwest Border states, according to the report.

China is one of the main suppliers of nitazenes.

“Chemical suppliers – mainly located in China – introduce new nitazenes when the ones currently used become riskier to produce due to regulatory actions and drug scheduling, or users look for novel opioids that are not yet illegal,” according to the DEA report.