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Elephant tranquilizer is contaminating the US heroin supply — especially in Ohio

The ultra-potent synthetic opioid carfentanil is continuing to spread across the United States, with the DEA now confirming the drug — which is about 5,000 times more powerful than heroin — has been found in at least 407 cases across eight states.

About 85 percent of those incidents occurred in Ohio, where carfentanil has been linked to dozens of fatal overdoses. DEA spokesman Russell Baer said the agency is still investigating why the Midwestern state is America’s carfentanil epicenter.


“We don’t really have a working theory,” Baer said, “other than to say that drug trafficking follows the laws of supply and demand.”

As reported by VICE News in October, at least 21 fatal overdoses in Cincinnati and surrounding Hamilton County have been linked to carfentanil. Another 14 fatal overdoses in Akron have been attributed to carfentanil, according to the DEA.

Here’s where carfentanil has been found so far. The DEA says additional cases are suspected in West Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania, but the lab results are still pending.

Ohio (343 cases)

Florida (34 cases)

Kentucky (14 cases)

Rhode Island (5 cases)

Michigan (5 cases)

Georgia (3 cases)

Indiana (2 cases)

Illinois (1 case)

A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that carfentanil, which zookeepers use to tranquilize elephants and other large mammal and was once used as a chemical weapon by Russia, is readily available for purchase online from manufacturers in China.

Under pressure from the U.S., Chinese authorities recently outlawed 19 compounds similar to fentanyl, but carfentanil remains unregulated. The AP found 13 suppliers willing to sell it to online buyers with “no questions asked.”

Baer noted, however, that Chinese manufacturers aren’t the only ones responsible for the spread of carfentanil. He said Mexican cartels have been importing the precursor chemicals necessary to make carfentanil and mixing the finished product with heroin destined for the U.S. Baer also pointed out that the problem is ultimately the result of soaring demand from opioid-addicted customers in the U.S.

“We’re not simply pointing the finger at China and Mexico,” Baer said. “We’re pointing the finger at ourselves as well.”

And even if China blacklists carfentanil, other obscure varieties — such as furanylfentanyl, acetylfentanyl, and acrylfentanyl — are likely to take its place on the illicit market. Baer noted a recent case in Lubbock, Texas, where authorities seized four different varieties of fentanyl during a single bust.