A clandestine laboratory in New York may be the source of a powerful designer drug blamed for at least 22 deaths in Maryland since Jan. 25, federal drug officials say.
The illicit drug -- which has no recognized medical use -- is a variation of fentanyl-citrate, a legally manufactured painkiller.
Anthony J. Senneca, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman, told a group of law enforcement officers in Hagerstown yesterday that the designer drug -- a synthetic variation of a legitimate drug transformed into an illicit drug -- is being funneled into the state through an "extremely well-developed heroin pipeline."
Mr. Senneca told the group the DEA believes it is being brought into the area from a lab in New York.
Federal officials have been following the drug's path since 1988, when 23 deaths were reported, 18 of them in Pittsburgh. During the first six months of 1991, 28 overdose deaths were reported, most of them in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
DEA officials yesterday said impurities and other unusual chemicals were present in recently seized Fentanyl -- an indication it was produced in a clandestine lab.
Baltimore police last month seized 550 bags of Fentanyl, each of which contained lethal dosages of the synthetic drug.
Fentanyl -- a synthetic opiate -- is often sought by heroin addicts looking for a powerful high. But in some cases, it is sold to unsuspecting users who think they are buying heroin, officials said.
Dr. John Smialek, Maryland's chief medical examiner, said his office is conducting toxicology tests on overdose victims that could increase the number of deaths linked to the designer drug.
Fentanyl was developed as an anesthesia in 1960 by a pharmaceutical firm in Belgium.
There are at least 10 variations of the drug, including an illicit drug that users call called China White, which is 1,000 times more powerful than morphine.
One kilo of Fentanyl can be used to manufacture the same number of dosages that 500 kilos of heroin would provide, officials said.
Fentanyl is so potent that legitimate manufacturers require employees to wear self-contained breathing apparatus and disposable clothes when working with the drug. A couple of grains of Fentanyl about the size of sand can be fatal if ingested or absorbed through the skin, federal officials said.