U.S. agents in southern Arizona seized up to 440 pounds of what they suspect is a precursor chemical often used to manufacture the dangerous drug fentanyl, a sign that producers may be moving to manufacture the deadly synthetic opioid on American soil, reports Associated Press. The powdered chemical was being transported by agents Thursday morning from a residence and warehouse in Tucson, where it had been sent in recent months in a series of suspicious packages from China that did not identify their contents, said Leo Lamas of Homeland Security Investigations. When federal agents arrived, there were no immediate reports of arrests. Lamas said the agency launched the investigation several months ago after learning suspicious packages containing the chemical were being shipped to the two locations from China. If it emerges that the chemicals were destined for fentanyl production, Thursday’s seizure could mark a new model for how it is manufactured, making it more readily available to U.S. consumers.
Fentanyl was developed as a legal drug to treat intense pain from ailments including cancer. Mexican drug cartels have produced most of the illegal fentanyl seen in the U.S., smuggling it inside vehicles or strapped to pedestrians crossing at ports of entry along the international border. The drug is sold in various forms, including blue pills designed to look like oxycodone, known locally in southern Arizona as “Mexican oxy.” In its powder form, fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs like heroin or methamphetamine. Investigators in recent months have seen incipient signs that producers may be trying to make fentanyl inside the U.S., said Lamas. Over the last year, "we have started to uncover pill presses domestically in the United States,” he said. Cheap to produce and buy, fentanyl has exploded in popularity. Even a tiny dose can be fatal because it’s 50 times more potent than heroin, and producers don’t tend to worry about quality control when pressing the powder into pills or lacing it with other drugs. Addiction to fentanyl has spread through homeless populations in Los Angeles and other large western cities, where it is sold in small doses at low cost.