Nearly all the heroin that has plagued New England with fatal overdoses in recent months is produced in Colombia and shipped to Mexico, where authorities believe drug cartels add the painkiller fentanyl to make a potent combination destined for the United States, the region’s top drug enforcement official said.
Ruthless drug organizations are including fentanyl, an opioid 30 times more powerful than heroin, to provide a new, extreme high for addicts who often are unaware the synthetic painkiller has been added, said Michael Ferguson, acting special agent in charge of the New England division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“They’re in business for one reason and one reason only. They’re in business to make money,” Ferguson said of the drug lords producing the concoction. “If you mix fentanyl in with the heroin, it’s there for one reason — to make it more powerful.”
In an interview with The Boston Globe last week, Ferguson provided an unusually detailed depiction of the journey that fentanyl-spiked heroin takes before landing in New England.
After being laced with fentanyl, the drug mix is smuggled across the border to traffickers in the United States, Ferguson said. Some of those traffickers drive more than 2,000 miles from New England to the US Southwest border and return directly with the drugs to cities such as Boston, Hartford, and Providence, he said.
Ferguson did not rule out that some fentanyl is added to heroin after it reaches the United States, but said the agency had uncovered little evidence of that.
Once in New England, heroin and its fentanyl-laced version are parceled out to dealers in smaller cities, in affluent suburbs, and in isolated towns. To reach those communities, the Colombian and Mexican drug organizations funnel heroin through contacts in “virtually every major city and town in New England,” Ferguson said.
Although drug users have become more aware of the dangers of fentanyl-laced heroin, many addicts desperate to ease the pain of withdrawal do not care about the consequences, substance-abuse workers say.
And for other drug users, the thrill of a fentanyl-propelled high is a lure in itself.
“They’re chasing the ultimate high, and if it happens to be heroin that is mixed with fentanyl, then so be it,” Ferguson said. “They’re willing to risk using that heroin with very serious consequences.”
Although New England has grappled with heroin abuse for decades, the region has been afflicted by a startling rise in overdose deaths since late last year. Local authorities across New England have said for months that they believe the spike is being driven by the introduction of fentanyl, a drug often used to treat pain in terminally ill cancer patients.
More than 200 people in Massachusetts have died from opioid overdoses since November, according to State Police and municipal data. And in Rhode Island, 91 people died of overdoses from the beginning of the year through mid-May. Close to half of the fatal overdoses there were connected to heroin mixed with unprescribed fentanyl.
Anthony Pettigrew, a DEA special agent in Boston, said fentanyl was found frequently — but not invariably — in a recent collection of drug samples taken from the South Shore of Massachusetts. During a four-week period, he said, seven of 17 samples tested positive for fentanyl.
“Keep in mind this can be fluid and can change month to month depending on sources of supply,” Pettigrew said. However, he cautioned, “anytime you have fentanyl in an already dangerous drug — heroin — we are concerned.”
The spread of heroin is fueled by its cheap cost compared with prescription opioids, which can serve as a gateway drug to heroin, DEA officials said.
Another concern is that many users no longer regard injecting heroin as a shameful symbol of addiction. “We’re losing the grip on that stigma,” Ferguson said.
John Merrigan, register of probate in Franklin County, said that tracing fentanyl production to Mexico seems plausible.
The technical expertise to mix heroin and fentanyl probably is more available outside his sparsely populated county in Western Massachusetts, Merrigan said. And Franklin County’s proximity to Interstate 91, which helps link the drug markets of New York City, Hartford, and Springfield, puts the area in convenient reach of traffickers.
Merrigan, who helps lead the hard-hit county’s fight against opioid abuse, said fentanyl is a prime suspect in the area’s overdoses this year.
“I don’t doubt that some of the spike we’ve seen has been related to heroin with some sort of additive,” Merrigan said.
The DEA is targeting both the top echelons of the drug network and lower-level traffickers who bring their products to New England. “We’ll try to eliminate the entire organization from the distributor on up,” Ferguson said.
Agents are working inside Colombia and Mexico. Closer to home, the DEA is partnering with state and local police in cities such as Springfield, Worcester, and New Bedford to dismantle the operations there.
“We’re dealing with some very sophisticated organizations” whose leaders have long, violent criminal histories, Ferguson said. “The streets are mean out there, and it’s about competition.”
The partnership has been effective, said State Police spokesman David Procopio.
“These joint efforts allow us to conduct larger-scale operations that target mid-level sources of narcotics, including those suspects who are point men for or conduits to international drug networks,” he said. “These operations also allow us to build wide-ranging cases that culminate in multidefendant sweeps.
“Working with the DEA also helps identify the routes through which drugs are smuggled into Massachusetts, which is a valuable source of intelligence.”
In May, the DEA sponsored a New England-wide meeting on the heroin trade attended by 150 law enforcement officers from across the region. Intelligence was shared from the ground-level perspective of local police and from the bird’s-eye view of DEA headquarters, Ferguson said.
Ferguson declined to discuss DEA staffing or whether the agency needs more resources to combat the heroin trade. However, he did say that a key component of the fight is broad, heightened awareness.
“An issue like this is a public health issue,” he said. “It has to be addressed by education, treatment, and law enforcement as well.”