Sharp increase in fentanyl seizures at southern border

By Madison Bullington

TUCSON – A confiscation of 254 pounds of fentanyl at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales last month provided a highlight into the pipeline of drugs coming from Mexico.

“People will smuggle drugs any way you can imagine. Whether it be through trucks, produce, cars, planes. We just took 20 kilos of meth off a train over the weekend,” said Lt. Chris Wildblood, deputy commander of the Counter Narcotics Alliance at the Tucson Police Department. “It will come any way they can move it and avoid detection.”

Seizures of fentanyl at the southern border increased from 8,900 pounds in 2010 to 82,000 pounds in 2018, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In the recent Nogales seizure, a canine team alerted Customs and Border Patrol officers to conduct a secondary inspection. The drugs, said to be enough for millions of lethal doses, were discovered under a shipment of cucumbers in a 1999 Volvo truck.

There were 416 packages of opioids, with 94 packages containing fentanyl and 322 containing methamphetamines.

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl were involved in approximately 30,000 deaths in the United States. Small amounts of fentanyl can be toxic. Only 2 milligrams – the volume of just a pinch of salt — can be enough for a deadly dose in an average person. In the last year, more than two people a day in Arizona died of suspected opioid overdoses. From June 2017 to last month, there were 2,384 suspected opioid deaths in Arizona.

“The opioid crisis has been going on for four to five years now and I would attribute that to fentanyl,” Wildblood said. “Our lab has tested all sorts of crazy compounds that have been identified to contain fentanyl.”

Sold alone or in combination with heroin and other substances, fentanyl can be injected, snorted, taken orally by pill, smoked and spiked onto blotter paper. The powerful opioid has even been identified in counterfeit pills that mimic pharmaceutical drugs such as Oxycodone.

“The illicit drugs are not made in a pharmaceutical grade laboratory that’s approved by FDA or up to their standards,” Wildblood said. “They’re made in laboratories, usually in Mexico, where we think the people making the drugs stamp most of the counterfeit pills out. But they’re not inheriting standards, ethics or protocols that you’d get if you went to Walgreens and bought actual pills.”

Cutting fentanyl with other substances has made production and sales of the drug highly lucrative for the cartels who are in the business. The 254 pounds of fentanyl seized in Nogales was estimated to have been worth approximately $3.5 million. The meth–weighing about 395 pounds–was worth only about $1.18 million.

While Mexican cartels are a growing problem, Wildblood said, the real issue is fentanyl from China.

“You can go on the dark web and order it or even use Bitcoin. “That’s a big one,” Wildblood said. “People will order it and ship it over. Sometimes it gets shipped into Mexico and Canada and sometimes it will come right through Customs.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is anywhere from 50 to 100 more potent than morphine and is typically only used by hospitals for extreme or chronic pain.

Kelly McClelland, an operating room nurse at South Banner University Medical Center, said fentanyl is sometimes used for for chronic pain but morphine can be preferable because of fentanyl’s side effects.

“When we give our patients fentanyl we usually give it to them through an IV to help with the pain after surgery,” she said.  “We also prescribe fentanyl patches for people with chronic pain, but it should only be used by the person it is prescribed to.”

However, Wildblood said he believes that the real solution for ending the illegal drug trade in Arizona is greater than simply increasing drug enforcement.

“You can’t just blame the cartels for it, you have to blame the users and the demand for it in the United States,” Wildblood said. “You can throw as much money as you want at it and can put dents in trying to prevent the cause but in my opinion, you have to have demand reduction. You just have to.”