GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Grand Rapids says that opioids and their synthetic counterparts are their agency's "greatest threat" currently nationwide.
In the last two weeks, Grand Rapids Police and first responders used Narcan--the lifesaving drug that can reverse opioid overdoses--for at least 14 overdoses. Of those ODs, thirteen people survived and died. It is believed that all were fentanyl overdoses.
“[Fentanyl] just takes a few micrograms to kill you," said Mike Yasenchak, lead agent in the Grand Rapids' DEA office.
A side-by-side comparison of heroin and its synthetic lookalike, fentanyl, bares no different appearance or odor. Each are typically sold as heroin, though fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, which makes it deadly.
"It ends up being a Russian roulette if it gets to the point of injecting heroin, because you just don't know what you're going to get," said Yasenchak.
In the last five years, cases involving opioids and synthetics, including prescriptions fentanyl, have grown as a portion of DEA investigations, from just 10 percent to 50 percent of DEA investigations nationwide, said Yasenchak. Fentanyl is cheap and profitable: it costs 60 percent of what it takes to make heroin.
The DEA's efforts are international. “We are currently working with the Beijing officials, the Department of Safety in Beijing, to try to curtail some of these chemicals that are being sent," said Yasenchak.
Investigators believe drug companies in China are manufacturing chemicals needed to make fentanyl, and then they are smuggled into the United States and then into Mexico. Agents believe the majority of labs using the chemicals to make fentanyl are located in Mexico. Then the finished synthetic drug is brought back across the border.
In Grand Rapids, the police department's vice unit is working with the DEA to track where exactly these batches of likely fentanyl are coming from.
“Our role is public safety, and we’re seeing people who are [overdosing] out here," said GRPD Sgt. Terry Dixon. "Until we figure out what’s going on, we’re going to continue to work on it until we limit and stop these overdoses.”
Dixon would not release the man's name who is believed to have died from a fentanyl overdose in Grand Rapids due to pending confirmation from the medical examiner.