A deadly designer drug that's much more powerful than morphine is making its way from New York to Maryland through an "extremely well-developed heroin pipeline," according to a federal drug official.
The illicit drug -- a variation of legally manufactured fentanyl citrate -- has been linked to 22 Maryland deaths since Jan. 25. Anthony J. Senneca, a Drug Enforcement Administration XTC spokesman, said it is likely that the illicit fentanyl was produced in a clandestine lab in New York.
Speaking to a group of law enforcement officials in Hagerstown on Wednesday, Mr. Senneca said production of the illicit drug offers "phenomenal profits for a chemist who wants to be a millionaire."
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-users call China White and which is 1,000 times more powerful than morphine. Fentanyl citrate -- a legally manufactured surgical anesthetic -- is 100 times more powerful than heroin.
Fentanyl can be manufactured cheaply, and one kilo will produce the same number of dosages 500 kilos of heroin would provide, 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.
DEA officials 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.
Federal officials have been following the drug since 1988, when 23 deaths were reported. During the first half of 1991, 28 overdose deaths were reported, most of them in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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.
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.
Mr. Senneca said that illicit fentanyl "is a very difficult compound to make" and that failure to dilute it properly results in overdoses when it is sold on the streets.